COVID-19 exposes vulnerabilities of migrant workers around the world


From Asia to the Middle East, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of the world’s estimated 164 million low-paid migrant workers, who toil at the jobs locals do not want, to save money and get a leg up back home.

As COVID-19 takes its toll on economies and public health in many countries, low-wage migrant worker population have largely been affected disproportionately.

Observers say the problems migrant workers face include poor living conditions, insufficient legal protection and limited access to healthcare.

Last month, Saudi Arabia had shipped home nearly 3,000 of the estimated 200,000 Ethiopians living there before the United Nations called for a halt.

In Kuwait last month, at least a dozen migrant workers took their own lives or attempted to, according to, an activist website, citing media reports.

In Thailand, hundreds of thousands of workers from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are said to have fled home after a lockdown left them with the prospect of being stuck without money or food.

In Malaysia, police rounded up 200 undocumented workers last week alone in Petaling Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, even as officials gradually ease movement restrictions. The country is thought to have at least five million migrant workers.

Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest contributors of labour, has repatriated more than 130,000 of its citizens working abroad as construction workers, cruise ship staff and housekeepers, as well as students.

Singapore has struggled to deal with a coronavirus outbreak that spread quickly through its population of foreign workers in dormitories, while countries with large numbers of low-wage migrant workers are grappling with similar issues.

Mr. David Welsh, country director of the South-east Asia branch of the Solidarity Centre, a non-profit organisation, said the crisis has exposed the poor conditions many migrant workers face.

“Migrant workers have been left aside by governments who have relied on them to do dangerous jobs that have become even more dangerous during this crisis,” Mr. Welsh said.

Then, there is Qatar, where observers say criticism of the country’s treatment of migrant labour in the wake of its successful bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has sparked changes that are a lesson to others but also a demonstration of how difficult the process is going to be.

Like in Singapore, the outbreak in Qatar has centred on its foreign workers, who outnumber Qataris in the workforce by nearly 20 to one. Total infections have ticked past 40,000 in a country with 2.8 million people.

Last month, Amnesty International and a coalition of non-governmental organisations and trade unions sent letters to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, raising concerns about migrant workers.

Amnesty International’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf said: “While some governments made promising commitments to support migrant workers, much more needs to be done to ensure COVID-19 will not result in further human rights violations and greater suffering for migrant workers in these countries.” (Source: The Straits Times)