The world has taken a significant toll after it was hit by the COVID-19 Pandemic and that too on an unprecedented scale. Though there were speculations of a widespread epidemic, none of the nation’s saw the pandemic coming. As a result of this, for the first time in decades, let alone the developing nations, even developed nations have entered into a state of partial or complete lockdown. Owing to this, a sudden wave of stagnation has hit the markets and has made the economies of many countries plunge. Even though the situation is claimed to be under control, we don’t see any signs of improvement. There is no doubt that from corporate/business giants to start-ups, every company is facing a financial crisis. This in turn is affecting the employees and the labourers associated with them. Many of them have been laid off or denied salaries, forcing them into a state of poverty and indignity. As humans, each one of us has certain human rights which, coupled with the international obligation of countries under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are something that every one of us can rightfully claim. Though many of us are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our suffering is nothing compared to that of the migrant labourers who have been deprived of their basic rights, denied of their dignity, and betrayed of their trust. This article aims to analyze the situation of migrant workers owing to the lockdowns and analyses their human rights which are being vehemently ignored by the countries or states they are stranded in.
As per the figures of the International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 2.2 Billion workers, representing 68 percent of the global workforce, are living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures. Migrant workers represent 4.7 percent of this global labour pool comprising 164 million workers with nearly half being women. Though the figures already look distressing, it is pertinent to note that in many countries these numbers are even higher. Though labourers are generally employed in mainstream sectors of economy with proper safeguards to prevent exploitation, the same is not the case with migrant workers who are generally employed in sectors with high levels of temporary, informal or unprotected work, characterized by low wages and lack of social protection. This makes the situation even grimmer for these stranded migrant labourers.
Depending on the sectors they are employed in; migrant labourers are frequently overlooked. They are always the first ones to be laid off in times of crisis and, unfortunately, the last ones to receive any support. In these times, migrant workers are the ones who are suffering the most with no access to wage subsidies, benefits, and social security. Being in a vulnerable position, their human rights are being vehemently denied to them. Women form a major chunk of these migrant labourers, and, unfortunately, they are the ones who are at high risk. Generally employed as domestic helpers, women are prone to assaults and sexual abuse. Moreover, denial of their wages has rendered them to a life of poverty and hunger where the respective governments ruthlessly turn a blind eye. The other major issue that these workers are facing is the invalidation of their work visas, which come coupled with a clause of validity only till employment. Due to the fear of being deported or detained, many migrant workers don’t come forward to avail medical facilities as they fear being identified. This not only poses a serious health risk to them but is a national health hazard. Adding to their dismay is the law of many nations where domestic workers, home-based workers, agricultural workers, and others who form a part of the informal economy are not considered as workers, thereby denying them even the bleakest of support. The potential risks of being trafficked are also hiked due to the fact that these migrant labourers are governed by clauses which prevent them from taking employment from other companies. All the mentioned factors, coupled with the exploitation, stigmatization, and exclusion from social fabric add to their dismay. Reports also suggest that labourers are stranded at places far from their home with little to no travel options because of travel restrictions.
Though the times are difficult, it in no way justifies the denial of human rights that these migrant workers deserve. It’s well understood that every country strives towards the betterment of its people, but that is yet to be seen during the pandemic as governments are turning a blind eye towards the plight of the migrant workers. It is time that we realize that every country owes its economic stability to these labourers, and, hence, instead of betraying them at these times of distress, we are obliged to help them for what they have been doing for us all these years, directly or indirectly. To address the issues at hand we need to work according to a focused approach. The first step would be to try and incorporate migrant workers into any form of support being extended; be it providing them monetary support at first to support their basic needs, and then creating jobs for longer run so that they have economic security after this pandemic situation ends; later followed by a bilateral cooperation between countries of origin and destination for ensuring that they are sent to their homes safely. Lastly, there needs to be full involvement of employers’ and workers’ organizations in the development of the government’s COVID-19 response because they are the interest group with a better understanding of the mind-set of their people. If all of these steps are effectively carried out, it can be ensured that no labourer is denied his or her human rights, and we, as a united human race, can cooperate for ending this crisis at hand.
Mohd. Rameez Raza is a student of Bachelor of Law at Integral University, India; he is also the Columnist for Centre for New Economics Studies, JGU. He has a deeply vested interest in Human Rights Law, Indian Constitutional Law, and Gender Studies.