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Locked down and in limbo: The global impact of COVID-19 on migrant worker rights and recruitment

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Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on migrant workers and their access to decent work. Beyond the immediate public health crisis, response measures including lockdowns and border closures had specific implications for the hiring and employment conditions of migrant workers. These measures have increased the vulnerability of migrant workers at the same time as the economic and social dependence on migrant workers who deliver essential services such as healthcare and sanitation has deepened.
To chart and understand this impact in detail, the ILO commissioned a series of rapid assessments in some of the world’s most significant corridors for low-wage migrant workers.1, 2 Completed in the initial months of the crisis (early to mid-2020), these assessments gathered primary data in the form of interviews and surveys from the perspective of migrant workers and key stakeholders (including governments, civil society, the recruitment sector, employers’ organizations, unions and workers’ organizations) engaged in migration governance, migrant worker deployment and the protection of the rights of migrant workers. These rapid assessments provide valuable snapshots of the immediate impact of the pandemic and early responses to the pandemic on migrant workers in various parts of the world.
Common themes emerging from the research also illustrate the ways in which the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities experienced by migrant workers globally.
These themes demonstrate the clear linkages between the impact of the pandemic on migrant workers and the structural causes of the inequalities and vulnerabilities embedded in many current labour migration processes and practices.
For example, many migrant workers interviewed by the ILO had their employment in countries of destination summarily suspended or terminated as the pandemic spread, leaving them without a source of income. These workers often found themselves stranded due to travel restrictions and border closures as well as directly or indirectly excluded from COVID-19 related social security packages made available to national workers. The pandemic also exacerbated debt burdens carried by migrant workers. Despite growing commitment to the principle that workers should not pay recruitment fees or costs, workers in many parts of the world continue to incur debt to fund their cross-border movement for work. Because of COVID-19, many prospective labour migrants who had taken on debt to travel were unable to depart, obtain refunds, or earn income to repay their debts. Migrant workers stranded without employment incurred additional debt and lost savings covering basic living costs for themselves and their families or in the process of attempting to return home.
While the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly had a sudden and dramatic impact on people in every country of the world, its impact on migrant workers is a stark reminder of the urgent need to reform labour migration governance processes and practices in pursuit of a fairer system that is free of exploitation and that facilitates decent work for all.