asias migrant workers are having a rough time under covid 19 - Asia’s migrant workers are having a rough time under covid-19

THE 200-ODD Bangladeshi and Indian men engaged to build a new resort on Baa atoll in the Maldives were becoming increasingly desperate. Since covid-19 closed the island nation to tourists in March, migrant workers had been forced to work without pay. They were living in cramped, squalid conditions and were short of food, clean water, medical attention and even soap. In May they aired their grievances in a silent protest. In a confused event a while later, they briefly took a few locals hostage—apparently believing they were mobsters sent to threaten them. In July they took their protests to the capital, Malé. The authorities’ response? To brand the workers a threat to national security and deport dozens of them. They were at least able to return home.

The Maldives has perhaps 230,000 legal and illegal foreign workers, or nearly one for every two Maldivians. Many have their passports confiscated by employers, have to pay exorbitant fees to employment agencies or are, in effect, trafficked, with no clear knowledge of whom they are working for. Now, thanks to the pandemic, they have lost their jobs or are denied pay.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, which is the world’s biggest supplier and user of foreign migrant labour, the details vary, but the general picture is depressingly familiar. Asia’s 33m-plus migrants—those who build the gleaming cities and resorts, clean and cook for the growing middle classes, and keep a billion toilets clean—lead lives that were hard before the pandemic. (One Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong whom Banyan knows was forbidden a day off for a month because she shrank her boss’s designer T-shirt in the dryer.) They have become only more precarious.

Most Asian states like their foreign workers to be out of sight when they are not doing something useful. In Singapore 323,000 labourers, most from South Asia, are housed in dormitories on the edge of town. Early in the pandemic the government soaked up praise for its deft handling of covid-19. But it had a blind spot: the crowded dorms. Soon, the virus was spreading fast among foreign workers, who now account for 94% of nearly 58,000 cases in the city-state.

At least the authorities were quick to test foreign workers and to improve their conditions. Workers have been given Wi-Fi, extra food and medical attention. In neighbouring Malaysia the picture is bleaker. The country has 4m-6m regular and irregular migrant workers, notably from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Huge numbers lost their jobs as malls, factories and construction sites closed. Under Malaysia’s “movement control order” the army barricaded a vast area around the Selayang wholesale market on the edge of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, locking in thousands of migrant workers, refugees and potential asylum-seekers who had found work there. Conditions in Malaysia remain appalling, with many migrants sleeping in shifts in plywood shanties. The government has given little aid to migrants, a bedrock of the economy. Nor have cash-strapped embassies been much help. “In Singapore,” says Alex Ong, of Migrant Care, an NGO, “at least they have beds.”

As economies open up, conditions are improving. At the peak, Migrant Care was distributing food to 2,300 migrants. Now it is feeding fewer than 100, mainly mothers and small children. Work is returning: for instance, global demand for Malaysian-made rubber gloves is booming. But returning, too, is labour abuse. Factory bosses are forcing foreigners to work excessive hours without breaks. Meanwhile, millions of migrant workers remain in Kafkaesque limbo. Many who are still unable to find work also struggle to return home, because of closed borders, an absence of transport routes or a lack of money. That puts them, unwittingly, on the wrong side of the law as residency permits expire.

Back in the Maldives, there is perhaps a bright spot. The police have accused the company that recruited the protesting workers, which is owned by a local MP, of trafficking and other labour abuses. In Malaysia Mr Ong says the recovery provides a “golden opportunity” to overhaul the system of recruitment of migrant workers, and especially to do away with politically connected operators. These grow fat securing government quotas for workers whom they, in effect, sell on to employers in need of them. One of the worst abuses of the colonial era in Asia was the coolie system of labour. But contemporary Asian governments preside over something eerily similar.

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “No pay, no rights, no recourse”

Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

Back to: Phuket Hotel Deals Property Blog Home Asia News

phuket agoda banner - Asia’s migrant workers are having a rough time under covid-19