Covid-19 and migrant workers – new problems in old clothes

The current world scale coronavirus crisis is likely to instil radical changes in virtually all aspects of our societies, economies and polities. While the rhetoric of ‘Build Back Better’ clashes with calls for ‘Just Recovery’ and ‘Build Forward Better’ (e.g. Morrison, 2020) the future Covid-19-shaped global society is in the making, and permanent, long-term consequences are still unclear. In the meantime, some conclusions can be drawn regarding the massive and abrupt changes imposed on many aspects of present day-to-day life. Among these stands transnational economic migration, a perhaps overlooked reality that has been greatly affected by the pandemic. The International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2020) recognised migrant workers as a particularly vulnerable category in the framework of the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing inequalities and created new problems.

Before Covid-19, migrant workers were regularly exposed to systemic and individual discrimination, precarity, inadequate living and working conditions, and deep socio-economic inequalities. These often translated into limited access to primary services as healthcare, housing, pension schemes, or trade union support, fuelling a social exclusionary machine.

The advent of Covid-19 aggravated existing marginalization and gave rise to new risks like unemployment and deportations. Productive slowdowns impacted many economic sectors employing prevalently low-skilled migrant workers, often operating within multinational supply chain networks across low or middle income countries, where the profit-driven need to source low-cost workforce has been usually met with mass transnational labour migration. Pandemic-imposed productivity decreases put migrant workers at higher risk of layoffs, with some being stuck without livelihood in hosting countries amid border closures, and others being returned to countries of origin, contributing to the virus spread (Piper & Foley, 2021).