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Covid-19 And Migrant Workers: The great robbery

Gulf countries are highly dependent on migrant workers in almost every major sector. Yet they have utterly failed to protect migrant workers, and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 200,000 have been sent back to their countries of origin in Asia. In all likelihood, the figure will rise exponentially when the flights resume over the next few months.

Despite migrant workers' colossal contribution in building the edifices of and shoring up the economies of the Gulf and other Arab countries for decades, coronavirus has betrayed the ill treatment and injustices that have been structurally embedded in this labour market. If anything, thanks to the pandemic, the reality that has thus far remained behind the scenes has been laid bare. Neither the opulent host countries nor most of the countries of origin (in their rush to secure the flow of remittances), have ever cared to duly acknowledge the problems that over time became well entrenched, let alone put in place mechanisms to address them.

During the Covid-19 pandemic many are without adequate food for days or even weeks, crammed in unhygienic and unsanitary quarters, some even without proper shelters, making a mockery of the WHO call for social distancing. A large segment remains idle as construction sites and other production facilities, restaurants and markets remain shuttered. Faced with a situation of possible deportation, many have been forced to accept withholding or reduction of wages without any guarantee of whether they would be reimbursed at all. Bereft of any earnings and with fast depleting savings, they face virtual starvation and are trapped in great uncertainty. Those lucky to retain jobs are unable to send money to their loved ones at home as remittance transfer facilities in destination countries remain closed.

In this grave uncertainty, what has come as a bolt from the blue is the arbitrary termination of contracts by employers. A large number of migrant workers were speedily notified that their services are no longer required. It was done at a time when their contracts remained valid. This was not the end of their affliction. Not only did the workers not receive a penny as compensation for arbitrary termination, but they faced the loss of all outstanding dues as well—wages, benefits and the like.

Taking advantage of their governments' plans to send workers back to their countries of origin, the employers who could still manage to run their enterprises, are terminating the contracts of migrant workers. Covid-19 for them is a God-sent opportunity to rob the workers of the huge sums of money that they are owed. A huge number of cases were reported where months of due wages and benefits have been withheld.

Employers in destination countries know quite well the iron grip they command over the market. They are also aware that if they require the services of migrant workers in future, their own governments would have no issues in granting them work permits. Yet again, the recruiting agencies at both ends would work in unison to get big cuts from the exorbitant costs of the new visas that they would sell to aspirant migrants, and the authorities in the countries of origin would be too keen to see one more worker go abroad, with the anticipation of an additional amount in the flow of much coveted remittances, deemed as an important indicator of national development.

Large scale return, deportation or repatriation of migrant workers during the times of Covid-19 is a reality. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 200,000 have been sent back to their countries of origin in Asia. In all likelihood, the figure will "rise exponentially" when the flights resume over the next few months. Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) predicts countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines will experience eventual return of a massive number of their migrant workers—"millions will be repatriated to situations of debt bondage as they will be forced to pay off recruitment fees and costs, despite returning empty handed".

A joint statement issued on June 1 by five leading INGOs and trade unions observed that "Without ensuring companies and employers are doing their due diligence to protect and fulfil the human rights and labour rights of repatriated migrant workers, states … became complicit in overseeing procedures where millions of workers will be returning without their earned wages …nor seeing justice". Those workers were not provided with any document (contract, pay slip, attendance roll etc) by their employers, through which in future they can lodge legitimate claims of compensation for the harm they have been subjected to, if ever a justice mechanism is put in place. While the workers endure unparalleled hardships without any possibility of redress, unplanned facilitation of "repatriation" frees employers from any accountability.

As yet, no exercise has been initiated to assess the measurable potential loss of remittances, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, through this wage thuggery by the countries of destination. The much celebrated Global Compact for Migration, New York Declaration, 2016 and regional (Colombo Process and Abu Dhabi Dialogue) and international processes (Global Forum on Migration and Development) have thus far failed to generate even a dim ray of hope for the millions of aggrieved migrants.

Photo: ITUC


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