By Kalinga Seneviratne
Many critics have described labour migration as the 21st-century slave trade and Covid-19 crisis has exposed this stark reality. Eastern European migrant labour in Europe. Unpaid construction workers on the brink of starvation in the Middle East. Hundreds of South Asian dormitory locked down migrant labourers infected with Covid-19 in Singapore. Global economy’s lack of compassion for the migrant workers that drives its engines is very much in display today.
Speaking on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Thulsi Narayanasamy, head of labour rights at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities that face migrant workers all over the world.
World Bank says that global remittances will decline by over $100 billion this year. Most of the migrant workers haven’t received their wages for over two months and “they are facing worse destitution possible”, she claims, adding “they are left with no food and no access to food and living in such conditions that makes them extremely vulnerable to the virus”.
She pointed out that workers such as in Qatar and Kuwait have been living in very unhygienic and cramped conditions that preceded the arrival of the virus. Rather than taking responsibility for improving the conditions of the workers’ living quarters, the onus is now put on sending countries to bring their people back home.
It is these conditions that contributed to the second wave of Covid-19 in Singapore. ‘Today’ newspaper reported that close to 90 percent of the 728 Covid-19 cases (May 11) in the second wave have been migrant workers, especially from India and Bangladesh working in the construction industry. They are housed in crowded dormitories where 10-20 people live in one room.
Singapore’s authorities have come down hard on workers who break social distancing rules, including revocation of work permits and bans on working in Singapore. But, migrant worker advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) has spoken out against the “harsh and disproportionate” punitive actions and called for better communication and improved living conditions to help the foreign workers comply with the measures. The government has now promised that they will require employers to provide better housing for their migrant workers in the future.
Real estate developers in Singapore are some of the wealthiest in Asia, and the low cost of labour flows from South Asia, for example, helps to keep costs down in the construction of condominiums. Giving sub-standard accommodation to their construction workers helps to lower the cost of the condominium units for Singaporean and other Asian buyers, while giving higher profits for developers.
Amnesty International along with Human Rights Watch, Migrant-Rights.org, and BHRRC sent a letter to six Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on April 17 calling for the protection of migrant workers’ rights during the pandemic. Between them, these six countries host the majority of the 23 million migrant workers living in Arab states, who come mainly from Asia and poorer Arab and African countries.
“Gulf countries are highly dependent on migrant workers in almost every major sector to help grow their economies and yet they have utterly failed to protect migrant workers, and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, in a statement. “This pandemic has further exposed their extremely vulnerable position, with many cases of Covid-19 being reported amongst migrant worker communities.”
Migrant workers from poorer Eastern European countries working in the EU are also facing similar conditions. London’s Guardian reported that when Spain imposed a lockdown in mid-March many such migrant workers in the farming sector were left with no or limited access to water and food. The workers also fear they are unprotected against the virus, both in the unhygienic settlements and when working side-by-side on the farms.
Clare Carlile from Ethical Consumer, a UK campaign organization supporting better conditions for migrant workers in the EU, pointed out to the Guardian that the situation is the result of years of neglect of workers. “They got visited by the Spanish army on the 18th of March and told to stay put, even though in some places running water is several kilometres away.”
Now, with Covid-19 fears, a water truck comes twice a week. “If you are at work and miss it, you must walk several kilometres for water after a hard day,” she said. “Failure of employers to provide basic rights has for years created dire circumstances for the inhabitants of the settlements. Now, the pandemic has pushed the situation to crisis point.”
BHRRC says that the world’s biggest manufacturer of rubber gloves Malaysia has seen a surge in orders from the EU and US since these regions became the epicentre of Covid-19. The orders have been flowing to companies that have earlier been blacklisted for the exploitation of migrant labour. One such company is WRP Asia Pacific, which the US says no longer use forced labour.
UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has recently bought 88.5 million medical gloves from Supermax, a Malaysian company that was blacklisted last year (according to BHRRC), for recruiting migrant workers that were reportedly exploited such as for paying excessive recruitment fees to agents, passport confiscations, working 12 hours per day for up to 30 days without rest, poor working and hostel conditions, and wage deductions for speaking out against working conditions.
Supermax has denied the claims, but activists are calling on governments importing medical gloves from Malaysia to uphold their modern slavery commitments to ensure protection for the workers producing rubber gloves to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Neighbouring Thailand is home to more than 4 million migrant workers, most of whom are from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the governments of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia have urged migrant workers to stay put and avoid travelling back to their countries of origin. However, many migrants have been compelled to return, as remaining in Thailand, for many, means no job, no food and a real risk of homelessness.
Mekong Migration Network (MMN) urges relevant authorities in countries of origin and destination to take immediate action to protect and support the welfare of migrants and their families. Many of the migrant workers are left to their own means because most of those in Thailand are either undocumented or ineligible for government assistance because they are in the informal sector says MMN.
Narayanasamy argues that the focus has to shift from concerns about remittances drying up to the welfare of the migrant workers. “The real question is what’s the cost of the remittances of those who continue to work under the pandemic,” she points out. ”People are concerned about the welfare of their family members who are far away and may not even have enough money to pay for phone credits, to keep in touch with their families … communication is impacted on an unprecedented level.”
Rather than focusing on remittance figures, the media needs to question whether those sending countries like India are putting enough pressure on host governments to ensure the safety and health of the workers and their wages are paid. “We have seen the situation in Singapore where the migrant workers are being infected and that should be of serious concerns for their families,” she says. “If you can’t speak to your children to say how you are going, I think concerns about those remittances and the impact on the economy should be secondary.”