Only 3 months since it started, the COVID‐19 pandemic has already had a catastrophic impact on the global economy, on the mobility of people and goods within and across borders, and on the freedoms that people in most countries have enjoyed for many decades. Global trade declined causing immeasurable disruption to global production chains, laying idle huge sectors of the affected countries’ economies, and generating a new wave of protectionism and even threats of trade war. Even if the spread of the virus is arrested, no one expects that the era of globalization will continue. The pandemic has laid bare some of the weaknesses of economic and social policies pursued by many states and re‐awakened dormant political forces that opposed greater openness of economies and societies. In the economic front, while some sectors may bounce back, others are likely to have difficulties recovering due to how people are re‐ordering their priorities and changing their lifestyle. Few governments since the 1918 flu epidemic have been confronted with a crisis of this magnitude. While closing borders has been the almost knee‐jerk reaction to the threats posed by COVID‐19, how to address the conflict between “health and the economy” continues to confound national authorities, and none more so than in the realm of labour migration policy.
Given the unprecedented levels of job losses, governments around the world are under pressure to “pull up the drawbridge” and stop the admission of foreign workers to reserve available jobs for local job‐seekers. However, many of the jobs still filled by foreign workers are in sectors like agriculture, public sanitation, and transport which most native workers, especially the youth, have already long abandoned. In Germany, even the seemingly simple operation of harvesting asparagus and strawberries usually done by Romanian seasonal migrants has proven difficult for inexperienced local hands. Spain cannot find local workers who can replace the 30,000 sheep shearers who usually come from Uruguay and Paraguay. Fasani and Mazza (2020) estimated that in the EU 13% of all “key workers” to the pandemic are mobile workers from within and from outside the Union.1. Those from outside the EU represent 17% of all mining and construction workers, 25% of cleaners and helpers, and 14% of personal care workers. In the USA, the need to insure an adequate supply of essential commodities especially food has forced the Trump administration that earlier announced the closing of borders to make an exception for Mexican farm‐hands. The Centre for Migration Studies (Kerwin et al., 2020) estimated that 19.8 million migrants in the USA constitute 18% of all workers in “essential critical infrastructure” jobs. Overnight, the “essentiality” of many low‐skill migrants, long asserted by human rights advocates, began to be recognized, although it has not stopped far‐right nationalists from taking advantage of the pandemic to instil fear that bringing in more migrants will only aggravate the burden of already over‐stretched capacity of national health systems.
With lockdown measures, many of those who found themselves without a way to sustain themselves are low‐wage foreign workers on short‐term work permits, undocumented foreign workers, asylum‐seekers and refugees. Only a few of them have managed to return to their home countries due to the cross‐border restrictions, lack of funds, or because they hope to recover unpaid wages owed by their employers. Many also chose to stay because they know that their chances of earning some income abroad are better than at home. However, those without residence permits are in many instances excluded from government relief programmes, and the undocumented are unlikely to seek medical services even when they fall ill. Like in Portugal, the authorities in Taiwan were under pressure to grant amnesty and give short‐term visas to an estimated 50,000 undocumented foreign workers who they feared would otherwise hesitate to come forward even if they have symptoms of the virus. In Italy, the proposal of the government to give temporary work permits to thousands of undocumented Africans was shelved because of threats of demonstrations from the far‐right parties. In Singapore, the government extended all expired work visas for 2 months and committed to assist laid‐off foreign workers with income support, free accommodation and food. Meanwhile, the congestion that long existed in employer‐supplied housing (43 dormitories for some 200,000 construction workers) quickly became the centre of a fresh outbreak of COVID‐19, raising fears in the local community at the same time that it exposed a major fault in Singapore’s foreign worker programme.
In many of the wealthy countries that could provide those laid off from work with some support, the question is whether laid‐off foreign workers should be entitled to the same financial support as citizens? If so, should the support be for all, regardless of their immigration status, or should the undocumented be excluded? While most countries excluded the undocumented from their healthcare systems, a few like Canada quickly recognized that exclusion is not an option since anyone excluded would constitute the weakest link in their health systems. Everyone, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, needs to be provided with health care for containment measures to work since some will likely be driven to take desperate measures in order to survive. Germany and Canada adopted the policy of enabling businesses to retain their employees by paying for a large proportion of their payroll. In the USA under its $2 trillion relief programme, companies that retain 90% of their employees were entitled to receive payroll support for 3 months. This means however that only those kept in the employer payrolls would benefit;2. many others would be left out especially where their employers cannot survive even with the subsidy.
For the developing countries where the migrants originated COVID‐19 confronts governments with equally difficult dilemmas. While they cannot refuse entry to their own citizens, the condition of their health facilities is such that some hesitated to re‐admit stranded migrants who wanted to, or were forced to return. Guatemala and El Salvador requested the USA to stop the returns of their nationals for that reason. When the Indian Government announced that it was organizing the repatriation of Indians abroad who were wishing to come home, some 180,000 immediately registered from the USA, the UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Singapore and Malaysia. The situation turned into a huge challenge when the Indian Government had also to manage the transport of internal migrants scrambling to return to their home states. In Myanmar, the government had to seek the help of Thailand when hundreds of thousands of their co‐nationals sought to return before the borders closed. Receiving many thousands of returning workers is proving to be a nightmare, even in countries with adequate health facilities because of the logistical challenges involved in isolating, testing and accommodating them in quarantine centres for 14 days. To compound the problem, some of those who tested negative were even refused re‐entry into their own home towns because of doubts about testing and fear that false negatives will spread the virus.
Aside from returnees, national authorities have to face the problem of assisting those who could not leave to take up, or to continue, their contractual employment abroad due to decisions to close down airports. In Sri Lanka, the authorities estimate that over 37,500 who were unable to leave are likely to have already lost their job opportunities (Weeraratne, 2020). Most of them have already incurred large recruitment costs and are likely to be in debt. Given the already huge challenge of providing relief to those laid off at home, little attention could be given to the plight of these “might have been migrant workers.” Diplomatic missions abroad were instructed to advise workers to try and stay where they are and to provide those who already lost their jobs with relief packages. Greater attention than before is also being given to reducing the cost of and facilitating remittances of migrants to their families.
In some countries, migrant welfare institutions established to provide continuing services to families left behind are now under threat of collapse due to an unprecedented spike in demands for funding relief measures. In the Philippines, the Overseas Workers Welfare Fund established over 38 years ago has built up a fund of close to half a billion US dollars from fees collected from migrants. Although it has weathered previous emergencies like the repatriation of migrants during the Gulf War, the rate that its funds are being depleted during this crisis endangers its ability to continue many of its services in the future. Given scarce resources, hard choices on what priority to give to current vs long‐term programmes confront authorities everywhere specially in developing countries, and decisions have to be made overnight with very limited information. Scarcity is not only with finances but even more critical is often the lack of administrators who have any experience dealing with an invisible enemy like COVID‐19.
The dilemma over health vs the economy also has a migration dimension for the origin states. Should governments allow its citizens to go and work in countries still coping with the pandemic? In view of disappearing work opportunities should they relax their standards so as not to lose out to other suppliers in highly competitive labour markets? COVID‐19 has uncovered the fragility of health systems in many countries in part due to shortage of trained medical professionals and related health workers. Many of the world’s most advanced countries like the USA and the UK rely on large numbers of foreign doctors, nurses, medical technologists and care workers for old‐age homes. For some of the origin countries equally short of such workers, there is now the question of whether they should restrict their emigration. For some developing countries that rely heavily on migrants’ remittances, the choice cannot be starker. The World Bank estimates that migrant remittances to low‐ and middle‐income countries will likely decline by 20% in 2020 from $554 billion in 2019 (World Bank 2020). The decline will hit hardest countries in Central Asia which rely heavily on remittances from their workers in Russia, countries in South Asia which have millions of workers in the Gulf States, and eastern European countries which also have large workforces in the EU. This likely drop in remittances, the largest source of foreign finance for many, will hurt their economies particularly hard because it occurs at a time when foreign investments and trade will likewise dry up, and foreign tourism will all but disappear for some time.
While much is still unknown about how COVID‐19 can be controlled, it is evident that better information about the weaknesses of social protection in general, and of public health systems in particular, will go a long way in helping policymakers resolve these dilemmas.