Globally, marginalized workers have been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus. Migrant workers in particular have experienced some of the harshest effects of COVID-19 and the related lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions.
Yet while the world has recognized “the bravery of frontline workers,” many of whom are migrants, “we must now turn that celebration into something that is meaningful and not just ephemeral,” says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
We must ensure “fair and ethical recruitment, decent work, and access to health care and social protection without discrimination. It is also critical we promote financial inclusion of migrants and their families. We must address discrimination … migrants must not be stigmatized or denied access to medical treatment and other public services.”
Guterres spoke during release of the first UN Secretary General’s report on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Adopted in December 2018, the Global Compact sets out a cooperative framework for achieving safe, orderly and regular migration within a rights-based framework, and includes a process for implementation and review.
The report, part of the UN review process, focuses extensively on the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s 272 million migrants and the guidance the Global Compact offers in addressing the adverse effects on migrant workers.
Fewer Protections for Migrant Workers Under COVID-19
As borders and worksites were shut early this year, millions of migrant workers were stranded around the world, many trapped in crowded housing with no access to support, including access to food and other life-sustaining provisions. Many migrant workers were systematically denied social safety net protections like unemployment benefits or other forms of income support.
Others were forced to work in unsafe conditions, suffered from wage theft, and retaliation for speaking out about abuse. Origin countries frequently lack adequate health infrastructure, exposing those who returned to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or making it difficult for those who were infected to find care. Migrants returning in these conditions are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence, stigma, discrimination and, without jobs, may be unable to support themselves or their families.
Although some governments took positive steps to voluntarily return migrant workers, according to the Global Compact report, many imposed even harsher restrictions. “The pandemic has been used by some [countries] to justify the increased and discriminatory use of immigration detention and to deport migrants without due process,” the report said.
The COVID-19 crisis also has worsened the situation for migrants in countries where they work. In Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed structural and institutional flaws in the way migration is managed in the region,” making conditions for migrant workers dire, according to a shadow report on implementation of the Global Compact in the Central Asian region. The shadow report cites such structural flaws as lack of work contracts that result in wage theft, no regulation of work hours and little or no access to health care or other social and legal protections. It was submitted to the UN by the Solidarity Center, the International Labor Initiatives (ILI), Insan Leilek and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.
The pandemic is especially hard on women, including the 8.5 million migrant women in domestic work, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex migrants, the Global Compact report finds. Even as domestic violence is increasing during the pandemic, resources are being redirected away from sexual and reproductive health services. The Global Compact report points to the need for a gender-responsive, rights-based approach to migration all the more necessary.
Remove Barriers that Repress Migrant Workers’ Full Potential
Rooted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and internationally agreed standards and frameworks, the Global Compact is grounded in rights-based policies and is a “call to build comprehensive, rights-based policies to ensure that migrants and their communities can thrive,” according to the report.
As such, “legislation should provide for ensuring the rights of migrants in accordance with international human rights standards, including fair and safe working conditions, the right to good rest, the right to access jobs without discriminatory procedures for obtaining the right to work,” according to a shadow report from Russian unions to the UN. “We believe that receiving countries should provide regulatory and visa flexibility for workers, especially during a pandemic.”
Noting the urgency for greater cooperation across borders during the COVID-19 crisis, including the integration of public health concerns into rights-based border governance, the Global Compact report recommends that member countries implement measures and practices in response to COVID-19 that ensure an inclusive public health response to suppress the virus and restart economies, protect migrants’ human rights and ensure the availability of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
The report’s recommendations support the UN’s June 2020 Policy Brief: COVID-19 and People on the Move, which states that “the best way to recognize the important contribution made by people on the move to our societies during this crisis is to remove barriers that inhibit their full potential.
“This means facilitating the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications, exploring various models of regularization pathways for migrants in irregular situations and reducing transaction costs for remittances.”
Ultimately, as the report states: “The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing the central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.” The report is in line with calls from the global labor movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, for a new social contract “between workers, government and business, which should include a floor of a universal labor guarantee for all workers.
“Implementing a New Social Contract would make sure that that rights are respected, jobs are decent with minimum living wages and collective bargaining, social protection is universal, due diligence and accountability are driving business operations, and that social dialogue ensures just transition measures for climate and technology.”
In short: A new social contract must include all workers, including migrants.