The Coronavirus pandemic affects everyone, but it hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Migrant workers are the most at risk to layoffs, to exploitation and to financial catastrophe. The World Bank estimates that global remittances, a key source of income for migrant workers’ families will fall by 20% due to the pandemic. Women domestic workers will face additional vulnerabilities to violence, and reports of abuse due to the lockdown have already trickled in.
Against this bleak landscape, Justice Without Borders (JWB) spoke to our NGO partners across the region to find out what they are seeing and how they have adjusted to meet the changing demands of these times.
Most experts are expecting that migrant domestic worker (MDWs) cases will increase significantly once the full impact of the global economic recession sets in. Many on the frontlines are seeing that increase already.
According to Seira Ong, Senior Executive at Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) in Singapore, their 24-hour helpline has already seen a 34% increase in calls during the “Circuit Breaker” period.
There has also been a significant rise in cases referred by the government and other partners. In Hong Kong, Christine Lintang at the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) has seen more cases related to Covid-19 in the last month than she had before.
JWB has also received more case enquiries directly from MDWs through its social media channels during the Covid period.
Most of these cases relate to the lockdown restrictions in Hong Kong and Singapore that have created high stress environments, as employers and MDWs are trapped in the same space for long periods of time. A lack of privacy and time to themselves can feel suffocating for MDWs, who during the lockdown periods in both cities, were not allowed to leave their employers’ homes for anything but essential errands like grocery shopping. Not only do these restrictions trap MDWs in situations where they may be more vulnerable to abuse by their employers, the lack of social interaction also contributes to heightened feelings of loneliness. Concern for families back in their home countries also adds to workers’ stress and anxiety.
Even more troubling, some employers have even resorted to using the Covid-19 restrictions to exploit or deny their workers their rights.
“FADWU conducted a recent survey and we found that some MDWs were denied their rest days because the employer was afraid that they might bring home the virus. We read reports of more workload and less rest time due to having to service an entire household throughout the day and night. We have also started receiving termination cases as a result of Covid-19,” added Christine.
This observation is corroborated by a survey conducted in Hong Kong by Mission for Migrant Workers, finding that 50% of MDWs surveyed had worked more in the past month than at any other time. Meanwhile, 40% had not left their employers’ house at all during that one month. A report from Channel News Asia similarly showed that some Singapore employers refused to let their MDWs out of the house for breaks and exercise, out of fear of the pandemic.
The story is slightly different over in Indonesia, a home country for many MDWs. JWB partners, Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI) and Pertakina reported that the number of cases has not yet increased. Mr. Pak Jip, spokesperson for Pertakina, suggests that this may be because of movement restrictions during the lockdown. He added that many Indonesian migrant workers are currently stuck abroad as a result of international travel restrictions, and thus are not seeking help from Indonesia-based NGOs. This is likely to rapidly change as international travel resumes and MDWs, whose contracts have been terminated, return to their home countries and seek to pick up their lives.
With reported increases in exploitation and abuse, many NGOs are struggling to keep up with the mounting caseload. At the same time, they are saddled with the need to adapt their current services and operational practices to the new government regulations.
Back in Singapore, FAST has accelerated its mediation services for MDWs who run into conflict with their employers but still need to continue living in the same household because the shelters are full. This is done by having the terms of the mediation settled online before the actual meeting and signing of contracts, ensuring that MDWs are protected whilst complying with government regulations for limited in-person contact.
FAST has also moved its Clubhouse activities and counselling sessions online in order to continue providing MDWs an outlet where they can de-stress and take a break. Besides providing recreational activities such as Zumba and cooking classes, FAST has also shifted its skills training program online – facilitating MDWs with classes on conversational English, childcare, and others etc for which participants can earn certificates to strengthen their resumes.
Back home in Indonesia, the most urgent impact is economic. In order to help keep MDWs who are stuck at home financially afloat during this difficult time, Pertakina started a mask-making enterprise.
Mr. Pak Jip says, “We received online orders from Jakarta – as many as 350,000 masks. We used this activity to empower many workers. We also helped them to sell chicken eggs, vegetables and kropok (deep-fried snacks) using Instagram and WhatsApp.” Activities like these help ease the economic burden on migrant workers who are trapped without employment during this time.
SBMI and Pertakina have also started using platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected with clients. They have been relying on social media to continue to educate people about the rights of migrant workers across Indonesia.
Preparing Together for the Coming Wave
While NGOs grapple with the immediate needs of migrant workers, it is only a matter of time before attention will turn to the influx of claims that will come. As many MDWs are sent home after losing their jobs post-lockdown, and those who were forced to stay at home produce expanded claims of overwork and exploitation, frontline NGOs must prepare themselves to meet the increased workload with additional help and expertise.
JWB stands ready to work with our NGO partners to help workers enforce their rights and ensure that they have access to justice, even after returning home. Now more than ever, our work is important as the vulnerable become even more vulnerable in the aftermath of the Covid-19 storm.