As employment sectors became impacted by COVID-19, many migrant workers were forced to accept poorer terms and conditions of employment, including reduced salaries, or face the termination of their work permit and possible deportation. According to a range of civil society actors, some employers are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to unlawfully dismiss their migrant workforce, and to withhold the wages and benefits that are owed to them. Millions will be repatriated to situations of debt bondage. This is a gross violation of labour rights on a large scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact upon the lives of millions of workers worldwide, with numerous sectors having ground to a halt or having been subject to insufficient safety mechanisms. The hundreds of millions jobs lost are estimated to have caused well over twice the unemployment rate increase suffered during the 2008-09 economic crisis.
The pandemic has taken a bigger toll on migrant workers than what was foreseen. Although hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have already been repatriated, lockdowns and restrictions remain in place; many migrant workers are forced to live without jobs, without their earned wages, and remain stranded in countries of destination, waiting to be repatriated.
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), which tracks over 9000 companies in over 180 countries, notes a substantial increase in the number of allegations of labour abuse between April and August 2020 (an increase of 275% on the previous year), with COVID-19 cited as a factor in 95% of all cases. Migrant workers have been terminated from their jobs, stranded in countries of destination or forced to return home without receiving their wages, dues and benefits. Wage theft is the most commonly reported labour abuse. Migrant workers, particularly those on temporary contracts and the undocumented, are thus disproportionately affected by the virus and the ensuing economic fallout, and a key challenge they are facing has been wage theft, due to sudden repatriation as the result of retrenchment.
Furthermore, millions of migrants will return to situations of debt bondage as money-lenders will demand that they repay their recruitment fees and associated travel costs even though many workers will have no money and no means of getting their unpaid wages from their employers.
An effective global regulatory framework and responses by global governing actors is needed
With COVID-19 having rendered the issue of wages a crisis of huge proportion, especially in the context of migrant workers’ sudden retrenchment and repatriation without being given an opportunity to lodge claims for unpaid wages, this begs the question as to the nature of the global regulatory framework and responses by global governing actors. Due to the absence of effective mechanisms to address wage theft even in normal times, during this extraordinary time of crisis more migrant workers have been unable to file complaints and register grievances. By focusing solely on facilitating (or forcing) return and repatriation and failing to address this systematic form of exploitation, countries of destination and origin have become complicit in exacerbating wage theft.
Justice for Wage Theft Campaign
The coinciding issues of the non-payment of wages and the continued lack of global action spurred an international campaign by a coalition of CSOs and trade unions which calls for an Urgent Justice Mechanism for Repatriated Migrant Workers in order to address the wage-related grievances, claims and labour disputes of the many workers who have been retrenched due to COVID-19. This is also referred to as the Justice for Wage Theft campaign and it includes workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and who have been repatriated to their countries of origin without being given an opportunity to lodge a claim for unpaid wages and other benefits, in addition to those who have been sent on forced unpaid leave. Launching its first appeal in June 2020, this fairly quick action was made possible by the existing partnerships and alliances between key CSOs and trade unions at the regional and global level.
The proposal has been made for the ILO to place wage theft on the agenda for its 2021 annual congress which would lead to a tripartite dialogue on this issue, proceeded by extensive data and evidence gathering by the ILO.
The Justice for Wage Theft campaigners propose that governments, private actors, businesses, and philanthropic foundations could contribute to a compensation fund. There may be other solutions, but the most important aspect that is needed to tackle the issue of non-/underpayment of wages for work carried out, is clear political will. And this is still lacking.