Director of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Conditions of Work and Equality Department, Manuela Tomei, says the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic has sparked off another crisis within its crisis.
“We know that many millions of migrant workers, who were under lockdown in their countries of work, have lost their jobs and are now expected to return home to countries that are already grappling with weak economies and rising unemployment. Cooperation and planning are key to avert a worse crisis.”
It is estimated there are 164 million migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them women, comprising 4.7 per cent of the global labour force.
While not all of these workers will return home – after losing their jobs or for other reasons – informal ILO research in more than 20 countries indicates that many millions are expected to do so.
“This is a potential crisis within a crisis”, Tomei says.
Already, tens of millions of migrant workers have been forced to return home because of the COVID-19 pandemic after losing their jobs. According to ILO, they are facing unemployment and poverty in their home countries.
As containment measures ease, millions of migrant workers may be required to return home to low and middle-income countries where labour markets, which were fragile before the COVID-19 outbreak, are now further weakened by the additional strain of high levels of unemployment and serious business disruptions due to the pandemic.
In addition, their families will suffer financially from the loss of the remittances normally sent to them.
In the meantime, other migrant workers have found themselves stranded in host countries without access to social protection and little money for food or accommodation.
Even those with jobs may be taking reduced wages and living in cramped worksite residences where social distancing is impossible, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
While many migrant workers, particularly women, are doing essential jobs for their host societies during the pandemic, particularly in the care or agriculture sectors, those in other sectors have lost their jobs or have continued to work informally.
Most of their home countries have very limited scope to reintegrate such large numbers, and often do not have policies and systems in place to ensure effective labour migration governance and smooth reintegration plans, including for skills development and recognition.
Governments in Asia and Africa, in particular, expect millions of migrant workers to return, whether through compulsion or voluntarily, as their job prospects evaporate.
A package of ILO briefing and policy documents focusing on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on workers who are migrants, refugees, or forcibly displaced persons, draws attention to the potentially serious social and economic impact if returns occur over a short period of time and if migrants are not included in social protection measures or given help to reintegrate into national labour markets.
The research also shows how returning migrant workers bring skills and talent that can help their home economies rebuild better after the pandemic.
However, the key to unlocking this potential is the establishment of rights-based and orderly return and reintegration systems, access to social protection, and proper skills recognition. This can facilitate better skills and jobs matching, so increasing productivity for national industries.
In addition, migrant workers may bring knowledge and capital to open new businesses that can help to improve employment opportunities.
Helping returning migrants reintegrate will also reduce tensions in their home countries, where some communities may fear that returning migrants may bring the virus or take jobs away.
Rebuilding the livelihood strategies of returning migrants will allow them to pay any debts related to their original recruitment abroad, avoiding the risk of forced labour and human trafficking, or re-migration through irregular pathways.
Chief of the ILO’s Labour Migration Department, Michelle Leighton, says “with the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery. These migrants will bring with them talents and new skills, and in some cases capital, that can support efforts in their home countries to build back better. We must help these countries grasp the opportunity.”
The ILO publications include assessments of the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers in Jordan, Lebanon and the ASEAN region, on seasonal workers’ schemes, and on refugee workers and other displaced persons.
There is also guidance on policy responses to help maximise the benefits of the returning wave of migrants, including procedures for recognising skills acquired, ensuring fair recruitment, extending social protection coverage, and help with finding new jobs or re-migrating safely.