Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in the Pandemic

By Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman (picture: Flickr/ILO)

Southeast Asia is arguably the region with the heaviest implications of the coronavirus pandemic. With one the most populous region and one of the biggest economic regions in the world, the impact of the health crisis that have led submerged into other sectors will be hard felt by all layers of the society. Notwithstanding the grievances and difficulties faced by other members of the workforce, some of the impact of the crisis are exacerbated in the case of migrant workers. Southeast Asia is home to 9.9 million international migrants with 6.9 million have moved in between the region. With the differences in policies in response to the pandemic taken by governments in the region, migrant workers face varying degrees of threats towards their livelihoods, healthcare, and jobs.

The crisis has led to a restriction in the workforce having to stay at home, strict traveling and border measures, and a host of policies that stretches the thin safety nets migrant workers have. Several concerns of migrants include but not limited to wages, job security, social security, healthcare and insurance, and housing.

First, migrant workers face a rising trend of extreme wage cuts in almost all sectors. This concerns all workers but would hit migrant workers the most as the majority are recipients to barely living wages. Some face wage cuts up to 50% in the manufacturing industry. Employers of workers have been affected severely by the pandemic, while some sectors, including manufacturers, are unable to shift their work into work-from-home arrangements. Migrant workers would also be impacted, noting that a proportion of them are daily wage earners, informal workers, and low-income workers.

Second, workers are faced with job losses as some employers would be unable to continue businesses or could only survive at the expense of cutting workers. Third, the concerns over healthcare, insurance, and social security is also a question towards the citizenship status of these migrant workers. Even more worrisome is the case of undocumented workers as having to visit a hospital should they contract the virus will lead to a series of legal repercussions.

Governments have had different approaches to migrant workers. Following a border closing, Singapore is left to deal with 300,000 Malaysian migrant workers unable to return home. The government has resorted to public housing that led to a new cluster of transmissions. The public dorm for migrant workers is home to 85% of Singapore’s positive cases. Notwithstanding the setback, Singapore has been at the forefront of the outbreak as the policies have allowed for free masks and hand sanitizers, mass tests and contact tracing, and strict border rules.

However, Singapore has had restrictions over testing foreigners over fears that recently arrived individuals purposefully visited the country for a test while the country is short on supplies. With the ASEAN Economic community’s aim to ease the transfer of jobs between countries, there is a necessity to focus on migrant workers, and the impact of COVID-19 brought to them. ASEAN has only had a limited focus on labor rights and a national government response equally sub-optimal.

In the regional level, ASEAN members have been late to promote the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) measures on labor rights towards its members, let alone migrant workers. Despite the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017, governments have been less than adept in handling migrants, especially in times of crisis.

Mobility and social security of migrant workers should be the concern for ASEAN during the crisis as borders close and works are depleting. Public health, as a matter of national security and the economy, has been the talking point for most of ASEAN meetings following the summit. These topics have come with a limitation over what can be done. The case of migrant workers should be promoted further as the more profound question of globalization, freedom of movement, and the grand project of the ASEAN Economic Community is looming.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an abruptly changed world. The pre-COVID 19 worlds held its grievances for migrant workers in Southeast Asia. The impact of this pandemic has only added salt to the wounds. The policies taken by governments at the national and regional level will be detrimental to the fate of the migrant workers.

Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. Fakhri is currently an intern at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

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