After Covid-19: What Migrant Workers Face and What We Can Do to Help

April 2, 2020
Category: Commentary

A Thought Leadership Piece by JWB’s Executive Director

The International Labour Organization just released a sobering report on job losses post-Covid. Unemployment will severely hit some of the most vulnerable workers, including migrant domestic workers (MDWs). In fact, many MDWs who keep their employers’ households running in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the Middle East could face joblessness, and would have to return home to places that may be struggling even worse. 

Back home, this outbreak will dry up remittance lifelines to key communities. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the losses could easily be in the billions. The people who power these remittances are often the key supports for young children and elderly parents. Coming home means losing those wages, and potentially returning to few, if any local job prospects as well.  

What This Means for Civil Compensation

This is where the legal issues start to come up. Even in good times, we have seen bad employers try to skip paying final wages and benefits after laying off their domestic workers. These women can often struggle to stay in their employer’s country while trying to claim compensation; many depart because they are needed back home to take care of their families. Their employers (correctly) gamble that they can skip numerous months of payments, if they can just get their employee out of the country fast. 

Compounding workers’ problems are outstanding agency fees. Many newer workers must pay back anywhere from 4-10 months of salary from illegal fees charged at home and abroad. Layoffs do not erase these debts in good economic conditions, so we can be certain that agencies will often pressure workers and their families to pay up during the inevitable economic downturn. 

Debt burdens are particularly dangerous for women migrant workers, as they can easily be forced into riskier forms of migration that all too often result in human trafficking. Escaping from these situations can take years.

What Can We Do

Now let’s talk about what we can do about this. The ILO is working with national governments to address the fallout on a global scale. That means we at the local level can begin focusing on the individuals who return home in desperate need of assistance. For Justice Without Borders, our cross-border work will increasingly find more and more coming home with both outstanding wages and still unpaid loans. Working with caseworkers, frontline government agencies and pro bono lawyers, we will be seeking to secure what these workers have earned, while attacking the illegal agency fees that keep them and their families in a cycle of poverty.

Realistically, a good number of these claims will not go very far for now. Some former employers will have held on to their workers for too long, promising them wages they cannot meet anytime soon. Still, some will be able to pay, and even partial payments will go a very long way. After all, every dollar made in Hong Kong goes many times further in places like rural Indonesia. That money can ease debt burdens, or help families get through a particularly tough time. At the very least, a settlement or judgment can be a promise of funds in the future that a claimant might have otherwise have left behind when they went home.

To be fair, retaining their MDWs will obviously be a challenge for some middle-class employers in our target countries, and they will face difficult decisions. Legally, domestic workers are an all-or-nothing affair in most places. Part-time work is not legal for them, and local part-time services cost far more per hour than a live-in worker. Care facilities can also be too expensive for those facing financial hardship. I feel for the families who must rely heavily on domestic workers, whether for child care, special needs support, or elder care. This will not be an easy time for them either.

Thus, for those who are employing migrant domestic workers, I hope you will be able to keep them on through these tough times. Those who cannot, please make plans immediately to have full outstanding payments ready so that when workers return home, they can do so with at least some money. The more time you can prepare them to transition, the better. 

The next year or more is going to upend a lot of lives, especially for migrant workers. This is now exactly the time to gear up for supporting those most vulnerable to exploitation. Our organization and the many frontline community groups we partner with are in a good position to soften the blow and help workers get back on their feet as soon as possible. Now is an excellent time to get involved if you want to help, and there are a great number of organizations to choose from. We are going through an historic time, but together, we can help some of our most vulnerable people get through, even after they return home.