Economic and Health Risks of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers


SEATTLE, Washington — COVID-19 continues to negatively affect communities and economies around the world. However, economic and health-related obstacles mostly affect migrant workers in foreign countries. Due to travel restrictions, migrant workers in foreign countries lack stable work and access to healthcare. Additionally, global economies are also greatly suffering from the effects of COVID-19 on migrant workers. Therefore it is important to explore the economic and health risks of COVID-19 on migrant workers.

As countries began closing borders and restricting movement, migrant workers were more at risk of exploitation and discrimination. Migrant workers are more vulnerable to the virus given that they work in lower-paid jobs and critical sectors more exposed to the virus. The effects of impacted migrant laborers are widespread because there are an estimated “164 million migrant workers worldwide, comprising 4.7% of the global labor force.”

Health Risks

Economic and health risks of COVID-19 affect migrant workers more than the average population. Many of them work in informal jobs that lack safety nets if illness or economic hardships hit. For instance, migrant laborers in developing countries have little to no health benefits or social security. Even if these workers don’t lose their jobs as a result of COVID-19, many will receive reduced wages. Consequently, these people will be forced to live in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible. 

With a lack of health benefits and unclean living conditions, migrant workers face a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. As stated by the Saudi Ministry of Health, migrant workers made up 75% of confirmed COVID-19 cases. In Singapore, migrant workers made up 95% of confirmed cases with 93% of the total cases arising from migrant worker dormitories. Furthermore, with restrictions on travel, migrant workers may be at greater risk to human traffickers and smugglers. Especially in countries with no stable health system or rule of law, traffickers may exploit desperate migrant workers for their labor.

Economic Setbacks

Economically, migrant workers and their families face great challenges. Due to lockdown, many banks and businesses have temporarily or permanently shut down. As a result, migrant workers cannot send their wages back home to their families. Not only do migrant workers themselves face unemployment and scarce wages, but their families that rely on remittances are also greatly affected. Since many remittances help children go to school, its decline means that children are more likely to be pushed into child labor.

As employment and travel decline for migrant workers, so does the money these workers send back home. Remittances are crucial to sustaining many countries and individual households. According to the International Organization for Migration, international remittances in 2019 added up to $551 billion dollars. Remittances often make up 60% of household incomes in poor countries. Furthermore, 75% of that amount goes to cover basic needs such as food, medical care and school expenses.

As a result of rising unemployment among migrant workers, the remittance flows in 2020 could drop about 20%. This decline is equivalent to $100 billion and has devastating effects on poorer countries. The economies in countries like Kazakhstan, Nepal, Haiti and Somalia are highly dependent on remittances. And in the case of India, remittance sums are about twice the amount of foreign aid investment.

The decline means that many households will find themselves with no source of income. Banks in poorer countries that relied on remittances as deposit funding will also see their ability to extend credit to individuals and the government severely decrease.

Solutions and Aid

Despite these challenges, there are various ways in which people can support these workers in need. Some countries have temporarily eased travel restrictions, allowing migrants to remain in foreign countries for an extended amount of time if their home country is under crisis. Similarly, bilateral negotiations between countries have temporarily allowed stranded migrants to return to their home countries despite lockdown orders.

In terms of economic assistance, some countries have required companies to inform migrant workers about online remittance transfer services. Employers are asked to make sure migrant workers are able to use the online services, ensuring that remittances can still be transferred to their home countries.

There also have been developments in existing social protection programs and the creation of new security programs that include migrant workers. For example, migrant workers in Uzbekistan can apply for skills training, and returning migrants to Myanmar are eligible to apply for an emergency cash transfer.

The economic and health risks of COVID-19 severely affect migrant workers worldwide. From restricted travel to greater risks of exploitation, migrant laborers face both severe health and economic risks. Although there have been plans to decrease discrimination against migrant workers, provide economic aid and support travel leniencies, migrant workers and poor economies are still vulnerable to the virus.

Silvia Huang

Photo: Flickr


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