Migrant workers bear the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis and its growing impacts, observe CCA webinar panellists

Posted on 1 May 2020

Ruth Mathen

Participants (partial view) of the CCA’s virtual conference on ‘Plight of Migrant Workers amidst COVID-19 Crisis’  (Photo: Jay Roy Tipayan, CCA)

CHIANG MAI | 30 April 2020: “Among the most vulnerable in wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Asia and the Arabian Gulf are migrant workers – especially those who are semi-skilled workers, those employed in domestic work, and those in labour camps. Internal migrant workers and overseas workers across Asia are among the many who are bearing the worst brunt of the pandemic’s consequences,” opined and analysed the panellists of a virtual conference facilitated by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on ‘Plight of Migrant Workers amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic that the world is grappling with today, the CCA initiated a series of virtual conferences focusing on pertinent issues and challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis.

The first of the CCA Webinar Series was held on 30 April 2020. About 100 specially invited and registered participants, as well as numerous others, became part of the virtual conference and live stream on the CCA’s Facebook page.

Dr Mathews George Chunakara, CCA General Secretary, who moderated and introduced the topic of the virtual conference said that despite the term ‘migrant workers’ bearing varied connotations in different contexts, the discussions were to focus on the plight of the migrant workers whether they were international migrant workers, internal labour migrant workers, or guest workers within a country or beyond its borders.

The presentations and discussions led by eight panellists from diverse backgrounds in Asia including the West Asian Arabian Gulf countries highlighted the plight of the migrant workers. They addressed the pressing concerns of migrant workers including the internal labour migrant workers within a country, casual and unskilled workers who have migrated overseas, those offering their services on a temporary or seasonal basis, or those working as domestic workers or industrial workers in different Asian and Arabian Gulf countries.

The global socio-economic crisis that has followed in the wake of the spread of the pandemic has thrust the future of migrant workers into grave unpredictability as they have lost employment and means of livelihood practically overnight. Their condition is exacerbated by their exclusion from normative government assistance, their invisibility in the workforce, and deepening social inequality.

Dr Sebastian Irudaya Rajan (India), a professor from the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, spoke of how the COVID-19 pandemic became an opportunity for reconsidering the long-term institutional negligence of migrant workers around the world. Speaking of the 20 million Indians who are overseas migrant workers, he said that the issues of overcrowded labour camps, unpaid salaries, and cheating by employers were not unique and have worsened the conditions of such workers since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Dr Irudaya Rajan, an expert with decades of experience in the field of labour migration issues, also shared the situation of the internal migrant workers within India who are stranded, restricted of their travel back to their homes, or forced to travel hundreds of kilometres, mostly on foot, without proper or timely government assistance after the national lockdown in India was announced by the federal government. He iterated the need of the government to step up its efforts to provide to such labourers accommodation facilities where physical distancing is possible, to contain the spread of the virus amongst migrant labourers.

Dolores Balladares-Pelaez (Philippines), Chairperson of UNIFIL-MIGRANTE, illustrated the situation that migrant workers from the Philippines have been abandoned by their own government, and described their condition as ‘volatile, insecure, and vulnerable’. Although the Filipino government rolled out a temporary relief assistance programme, it was insufficient and catered only to 150,000 migrant workers. Ms Balladares-Pelaez also highlighted that many migrant workers stranded abroad were under threat of becoming undocumented.

Brahm Press (Thailand), the Executive Director of the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP Foundation) described the situation of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand as going from bad to worse. Though the national government was providing financial assistance to employers, the benefit was not trickling down to the migrant workers. The workers in agricultural plantations were those in most need of relief and aid at this stage, said Mr Press.

Yusmiati Vistamika Wangka, from the Christian Action Centre for Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, shared the vulnerabilities of the domestic household workers in Hong Kong, of which over 98 per cent are women. The social unrest combined with social distancing has led to a lack of ‘decent work’ for domestic migrant workers in Hong Kong. Sharing results from a survey conducted among 150 Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong, Ms Wangka explained that a large percentage reported higher workloads despite the pandemic in terms of household work without any regulation on working hours. Redressal was extremely limited given that labour tribunals and courts in Hong Kong have suspended functioning until further notice.

Ms Wangka further shared the response and experiences of Indonesian and Filipino churches in Hong Kong and said the immediate concern of churches was to ensure the well-being of their own congregations. Centres have been opened to cater to the accommodation and health needs of migrant working populations; faith communities have also been instrumental in offering counselling and disseminating information about the pandemic in the migrant workers’ native languages.

Rev. Changweon Jang (South Korea) from the Osan Migrant Workers Centre in Seoul shared the experiences from the local situations in the country. The ‘twin principles of promptness and transparency’ were most effective in ensuring disease control and prevention and were the two pillars of the South Korean response to the virus.

According to Rev. Jang, migrant workers in Korea were permitted to access testing for free. However, on the flip side, they were subject to discrimination and were seen as the ‘problem’ in bringing the virus to the country. He also said that South Korean churches had partnered with civil society organisations to jointly alleviate the vulnerable situation of migrant workers in the country.

Focusing on the situation of migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf states, Soman Baby (Bahrain), a senior journalist covering the Arabian Gulf states for different media over the decades, shared the plight of the migrant workers in various Gulf states since the outbreak of COVID-19. He brought to attention the work of the Bahrain government for migrant workers, as well as the assistance provided by local social organisations in the country. With numerous relief funds being set up and with the government waiving off utility bills of all citizens, help has reached the most vulnerable people in the country at this difficult time.

Solomon David (UAE), an airline and aviation consultant who has been working with networks of migrant workers in the UAE, spoke of the worrying concern of social distancing within labour camps, wherein rooms are shared among 6-8 or more workers in thickly populated labour camps of construction companies with limited facilities. Although the government was attempting to ensure general solutions such as discounts and vouchers, the relief provided was not effective for the majority of blue-collar workers who were lesser privileged in terms of salary, social security, and health care.

Mr David shared the positive examples of the work of different Asian diasporic churches of CCA member constituencies based in the region who provide food in labour camps. The Roman Catholic church congregations have started community kitchens with government help, and are catering to almost 7,000 migrant workers in the labour camps.

Helen Monisha Sarkar (Bangladesh), the National General Secretary of YWCA, highlighted the plight of 50 million internal migrant workers within Bangladesh, such as day labourers, rickshaw pullers, roadside vendors, and small-scale business owners. As the lockdown continues in the country, most of these internal migrant workers were living in hand-to-mouth situations, and thus the biggest crisis that Bangladesh will have to grapple in the coming days is starvation.

Ms Sarkar also spoke of the 4.5 million workers in the textile and readymade garment industry in Bangladesh, of which 50 per cent are women who had internally migrated from rural areas and were working in cities or big towns. As many of them were single women living alone in large cities, they were at greater risk of gender-based violence and abuse.

Bishop Philip Huggins, president of the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), a registered participant of the virtual conference opined, “The discussions in this webinar indicate that, for many years ahead, the highest quality of cooperation will be needed amongst CCA Members, if we are to help vulnerable people live with dignity and in peace.”

Following the webinar, Bishop Huggins summarised the discussions and enunciated the common issues and concerns reflected during the discussions and observed that:

  • COVID-19 has rendered the vulnerable much more vulnerable. As we look at the immediate consequences of this crisis, we also see the issues we will need to address, post COVID-19.
  • Millions across Asia have travelled within their country for work. Now that work has stopped, they are stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Planned rescue services will only pick up a small percentage of those stranded.
  • Issues in common for internal and international migrant workers include going back home without income, and only amplifies issues of poverty.
  • With no income for food and shelter, many are in crowded accommodation facilities with little to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 infections. There are reports of workers on the brink of starvation in forest areas and crowded cities.
  • Poor nutrition, exacerbated by this crisis, leads to more disease.
  • There is little access to medical care or preventive masks and sanitisers.
  • Many now have no work, no pay and few savings, having had to service debts and send cash home to poor and dependent families in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc.
  • Domestic workers, mostly women, lose accommodation and income as their middle-class employers lose their employment.
  • Little or no government assistance has come from the host country or the sending states.
  • Migrant workers, especially those on temporary visas are susceptible to falling through the cracks as government ‘rescue packages’ prioritise other citizens, notwithstanding the rhetoric of ‘we are all in this together’.
  • Court delays impact those with pending cases to address claims of exploitation, visa issues, etc. With no new date, this amplifies issues of starvation, lack of accommodation and viable sources of income.
  • Undocumented migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable group in these current circumstances, as even casual work evaporates under lockdown.
  • As fear and anxiety rise, so, alas, does racism.
  • Elsewhere in Asia, there are more ‘hate messages’ on social media as international and local extremist groups exploit these circumstances.
  • False information causes some who have gone home to villages, as in Bangladesh, to then return to big cities like Dhaka, only to find the promise of re-employment is false. This causes more confusion, fear, hunger in crowded areas where disease readily spreads, especially given the absence of testing and preventive masks, etc.
  • Role of Churches:
    • Churches everywhere are being overwhelmed by the high demand for food, accommodation, counselling, medical assistance, and care for those impacted by rising gender-based and domestic violence.
    • In some places, the lack of a developed ‘ecumenical platform’, as one speaker described it, has meant that the necessary cooperation is not as it might be. This unprecedented crisis has exposed unhelpful parochialism.
    • Wealthier churches in the Arabian Gulf states need to struggle to get consent from ‘home headquarters’ or denominational authorities for the release of resources for ecumenical emergency assistance in the Gulf.
    • Local churches and village churches are overwhelmed by the needs of locals, let alone the needs of those able to return home.
  • The raw numbers who are now so vulnerable as a result of the pandemic are hard to calculate but can be safely estimated in the millions. The speed with which this crisis has proliferated has been unprecedented in living memory.

While concluding the discussions of the virtual conference, Dr Mathews George Chunakara stated, “Almost all churches in CCA constituencies including the Asian Diaspora churches in the Arabian Gulf states are deeply involved in addressing the concerns of the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective communities and societies. However, the vulnerable situations faced by the migrant workers or guest workers in our societies need to be considered as a priority concern by more churches in Asia in the coming days, even in the post-COVID-19 crisis period.”

The discussions on the plight of migrant workers amidst the COVID-19 crisis was not meant to be a singular event, but the beginning of new initiatives as a platform to share best practices and learn from churches, related organisations, and faith-based groups working with governments to alleviate the vulnerable conditions of migrant workers in Asia and in the Gulf region, added the CCA General Secretary.

The CCA has scheduled a series of webinars in the upcoming weeks focusing on various issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts:

  1. ‘Churches in Asia Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis’ – (7 May 2020)
  2. ‘Right to Health amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’ – (14 May 2020)
  3. ‘Upholding the Rights and Dignity of Children amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic’ – (19 May 2020)
  4. ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Women in Asia’ – (21 May 2020)
  5. ‘Food Security: Will the world face more deaths due to hunger than COVID-19?’ – (28 May 2020)

      The next webinar on ‘Churches in Asia Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis’ will be held from 12:00 to 14:00 Bangkok time on Thursday, 7 May 2020. The registration link for the same will be shared later.


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