Migrant workers tend to be more vulnerable to shocks as seen with the loss of employment and wages in the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension of all non-essential business has brought an end to many of the employment options and income sources available to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The inability to afford housing or to be admitted in a shelter has exposed migrants and asylum to a series of vulnerabilities, highlighting the need for safety-net programs that can support adaptive capacity.
In the “Migrants and COVID-19 – Emerging Practices” webinar, held on June 30, we heard from experts from the Latin America and South Asia regions who are working on innovative field practices to promote inclusion and expand coverage in social assistance and securing livelihood options for migrants and their families. This session focused on labour migration: migrants, particularly in lower-paid jobs and in the informal sector, who are not only prone to the health threats of COVID-19 as host populations but may also face particular vulnerabilities due to their condition of mobility
The discussion was moderated by Nancy Landa, Technical Advisor of the GIZ pilot project in Mexico, Skills for Reintegration, who was joined by the speakers Gabriela Benítez, from World Vision based in Ecuador; Rajeev Ahal from Natural Resources Management and Agroecology, GIZ India; and Virginia Negro from Western Hemisphere Regional Migration Program, International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Emerging practices: World Vision
Country context: in March 2020, Ecuador declared a sanitary emergency and a national state of exception to mitigate the spread of the virus, including suspension of face-to-face activities and all type of public events; suspension of the national education system; suspension of public transportation and vehicle restriction; closure of borders and airports; and curfew to restrict the internal movement of individuals and promote confinement.
Ecuador, with around 17 million inhabitants, is one of the most affected countries in Latin America by COVID-19. According to figures from the Health Ministry, as of June 29, there are 55,665 cases confirmed and 4,502 deaths. Additionally, Ecuador is the Latin American country with the highest mortality rate per million inhabitants, ahead of Brazil, which has a population 12 times higher.
Starting in May, Ecuador relaxed the confinement measures and began the transition from the “isolation” phase to the “social distancing” phase, as a strategy for the reactivation of productive sectors. Consequently, the economy has been affected as some 84% of companies have reported a decrease in sales, 35.3% reduced their payroll for the year and 70% have not generated income during the period of restrictions. In addition to the effects of the pandemic, there was a paralysis in the country’s oil sector due to the rupture of two pipelines, as well as the collapse of oil prices and the fall in prices for other key export products which has generated greater fiscal and liquidity problems.
The Government of Ecuador implemented social protection projects to assist the most vulnerable families. In the months of April, May, and June the government delivered a contingency bonus to 950,000 Ecuadorian families, especially to those who are dependent on informal economic activities. This was done in two phases. The first one included a contingency bonus of $60 USD for two months followed by a Family Protection Bonus $120 USD for one month in the second phase.
Prior to the pandemic, there were two events that heavily impacted the social and economic components of the country. One was the nationwide mobilizations in response to the economic measures by the government. Families and migrants were affected, and their condition worsens during the pandemic in three specific ways:
- Families in situations of increased vulnerability due to the health emergency including exposure to abuse and exploitation, food insecurity, and limited access to health services. Venezuelan families lacked access to programs implemented by the government which are destined to Ecuadorian families (food kits, bonus).
- Children in situations of human mobility are not guaranteed access to education particularly with the suspension of classes and transition to virtual modality as connectivity has become essential to continue with their education. Children are going out with their parents to sell food, resulting in children working on the streets.
- Increased discrimination/xenophobia as migrants are perceived to be at greater risk in the spread of the virus. According to OIM, before the pandemic, 55% of the Venezuelan population felt discriminated and, during the pandemic, this number has increased.
World Vision has a diverse set of interventions to aid these families. Since the health emergency started, World Vision Ecuador has implemented cash-based interventions (in-kind) in the following sectors:
- Food Security - World Vision resources, funded by the World Food Programme
- WASH - World Vision resources (In-kind assistance via cards, provided alongside training, with correct cleaning of hands)
- Health - World Vision resources
- Multipurpose Cash - private resources / prioritize their most important needs and decide where to invest the resources they receive
- Cash for economic recovery, livelihoods, micro-enterprises - a component that, at this point, is required.
This last intervention on economic reactivation has been implemented through the formation of savings groups and productive associations, providing positive results and incorporating both host and migrant communities. Additionally, it also contributes to the reduction existing of tensions and facilitates the inclusion process.
This crisis has propelled NGO organizations to rethink their work, for example in the sharing of information through virtual means, such as WhatsApp and the use of the Internet, because they cannot perform many of their activities in person. The coordination is important among local NGOs, international agencies, and local governments, to guarantee access to all services.
Migrants and COVID-19 in India: Indo-German Cooperation
More than half a million positive cases have been detected in India with 280,000 recoveries. Fatalities are on the lower end but rapidly rising. No state has been spared, but there are different levels of impact by state.
- 8 in 10 Indian households lost income
- The lower middle class was hit worst as they relied on sources of income worst hit by lockdown
- Rural areas are hit worse than urban areas
Unemployment and labour force participation has been on a decline since March, but it has recently recovered. It shows that opportunities are emerging as other forms of employment are being created. According to the Census (2011), there are 453.6 million migrants in India, which grows at 4.5 % annually. Usually, women migrate for marriage and men for work.
Distress migrants from water-stressed areas - having marginal or no land, illiterate or unskilled, migrate for short-term or seasonally - have been the most affected by COVID-19 since they're dependent on daily wages for living. One-third of migrants in the construction sector lost their incomes and have not been able to go back to normalcy. The pandemic has dislocated the migrant population as migrants are moving back to their communities of origin, returning to rural areas, and creating new pressures in areas that they had previously left due to lack of opportunities.
To respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the government of India adopted relief measures, including the expansion of existing social protection programmes:
- Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India)
Added an additional €4.8 billion to social protection program (MGNREGA programme), allocated in monthly cash support, direct basic income support, and collateral-free loans for micro, small and medium enterprises. There are specific direct benefit transfers to women, farmers, and the elderly.
Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (Employment Welfare Scheme for Poor) to boost employment and livelihood opportunities for migrant workers returning to villages, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Mahatma Gandhi NREGA programme is the largest social protection program in the world.
MGNREGA is an act to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas of the country by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. This programme has ample coverage, reaching 138 million families. 55% of work generated is done by women and 20% is by tribal and marginalized communities.
Under COVID-19, MGNREGA continues to operate with social distancing. The focus is now livelihood security and infrastructure creation, including water conservation works, anticipating the upcoming drought situation. Additionally, the average daily wage rate rose to Rs 202 (€2.44) from Rs 182 (€2.20) last year. There is a long and tested process for enrolling people, but exceptions have been made so people can easily ask for work.
- PM’s Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan is a new programme for COVID-19 launched on June 20, 2020, on employment for the poor.
The programme focuses on 116 districts in six states, where returned migrants are expected to be in the highest numbers. It aims to create durable infrastructure and to provide modern facilities given that part of social enterprises and social services work will be driven by internet growth. The programme is led by the Ministry of Rural Development and is a convergent effort between 12 different Ministries/Departments at the national level for quicker delivery to respond to the problems returned migrants will be facing in the villages.
- Indo-German cooperation support and innovations, directed to help with COVID-19 response.
The return of migrants to rural areas is increasing distress with additional pressure on agriculture and water resources. To prevent further shocks, the GIZ’s Water Security and Climate Adaptation in Rural programme is implementing measures to guarantee water security and climate adaptation in rural India.
These types of interventions continue to address needs that have been identified prior to the pandemic and, as the Indian context brings forth, responses must look for ways to quickly strengthen livelihoods when chains are affected. Improving disaster resilience and preparedness in rural areas (other disasters such as drought, locust attack, etc) is a way to move forward in creating a comprehensive social protection system.
Labour Migration During Times of Crisis
IOM furthered the discussion on the importance of emphasizing not just the vulnerability of people on the move, but also of people forced to return to their countries of origin. Tens of millions of migrant workers, forced to return home because of the COVID-19 pandemic after losing their jobs, face unemployment and poverty in their home countries.
As containment measures ease, millions of migrant workers may be required to return home to low- and middle-income countries where labour markets, which were fragile prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, are now further weakened by the additional strain of high levels of unemployment and serious business disruption. In addition, their families will suffer financially from the loss of the remittances normally sent to them.
It is estimated that there are 164 million migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them women, comprising 4.7 percent of the global labour force. While not all workers will return home – after losing their jobs or for other reasons, ILO research in more than 20 countries indicates that many millions are expected to do so. Most of their home countries have very limited scope to reintegrate such large numbers, and often do not have policies and systems in place to ensure effective labour migration governance and smooth reintegration plans, including skill development and recognition schemes.
As part of their reintegration assistance, it is fundamental to develop alternative assistance schemes. In some countries, for example, IOM is planning to use reintegration assistance to provide cash grants to returnees for three months. Financial inclusion is a key policy in complementing efforts to enhance economic participation both during and in leading up to economic crises of this magnitude, as highlighted in the case of Ecuador.
The work that remains is on improving policies that protect migrant workers in host countries, who often work in essential industries and convert those migrants that return into a resource for economic recovery in their countries of origin. Some weaknesses of public policies that pose challenges to the implementation of measures to protect migrants include gaps in regional integration agreements and insufficient participation of migrant workers in unionization and bargaining processes. Although many countries have put in place short-term social protection measures to support migrant workers, those with stronger social protection systems can better respond to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, countries may expand the scope of contributory and non-contributory schemes such as unemployment and sickness benefits to migrant workers, including those in the informal economy or with irregular status. Additionally, easing administrative procedures and eligibility criteria (such as length of employment, duration of stay, or minimum contribution period) will improve access.
The key to unlocking this potential is the access to social protection as well as the establishment of rights-based and orderly return and reintegration systems, with proper skills recognition that would facilitate better job and skill matching, increasing productivity for national industries. Migrant workers can bring knowledge and capital which can reinforce the economy of both their countries of origin as well as their hosting country.
This blog post is part of the Social protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IG, GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the socialprotection.org platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations.
Join our online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-10 [Task force]" to learn more about the initiative and future webinars.