Guest Post: Migrant Workers' Perspective on COVID-19 Response

This is a guest blog post from Shramik Sanjal, a worker-led network of Nepalese migrant workers, most of whom are low-income migrant workers in Gulf countries and Malaysia.  HU has been an early supporter in the creation of the network and has provided networking and leadership development support to members of Shramik Sanjal. 

International Workers’ Day has long been an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of migrant workers around the world, while bringing to light the poor conditions in which we often work and live. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly and dramatically changed our lives and laid bare the injustices and vulnerabilities that we face as migrants and as low-income workers. 

In the countries where we work, we face language barriers, misinformation and unclear communication, a lack of access to healthcare and emergency services, and no certainty about our welfare, our livelihoods, or the well-being of our families back home—creating panic for us and them—with little assistance from our employers, embassies or our host governments.

As many countries implemented lockdowns, numerous industries shut down and migrant workers, including Shramik Sanjal members, were among the first to lose our jobs. With airports and borders in our home countries now closed off, many of us are stuck in our host countries without work, with no resources for basic needs like food or shelter, and unable to send money back home to our families who rely on our remittances. Those who have returned from the Gulf to their home countries have been greeted with stigma, discrimination, and blame for the virus—an unexpected and harsh welcome given the collective contribution we make to our national economies. 

Back in host countries, thousands of workers are living in overcrowded accommodation without space for the proper social distancing measures widely advised in these moments. We have friends who have tested positive for COVID-19, and others who have all the symptoms but are unable to access testing.

Those of us who remain employed are often working without adequate protection, exposed to heightened risk on the frontlines of essential services that remain open, including grocery stores, delivery services, and cleaning companies. Women migrant workers face all the challenges listed above, with additional risks to their physical safety. They are often engaged in domestic work and now face increased restrictions on their mobility, no days off, and sometimes even abuse at the hands of their employers.

Employers of migrant workers are not just leaving workers unprotected and at great risk, but they are still engaging in recruitment fraud and contract deception. At the end of March we were contacted by a Nepali worker in the UAE via Facebook, desperate for emergency support for himself and 800 fellow workers, having been left stranded by their employer for more than a month. Shramik Sanjal, in partnership with Migrant-Rights.org, acted promptly to find safe accommodation and food supplies for some of these workers with the most pressing emergency needs.

The message came to us thanks to our recently launched Facebook Live informational sessions for Nepali migrant workers, aimed at providing accurate information about COVID-19 and a platform to connect with government and humanitarian support. 

COVID-19 is awakening the world to what it truly means to be an essential worker. From the people who build and maintain key infrastructure to those who clean facilities and deliver food–our labor and contributions have been traditionally overlooked, undervalued and during this crisis neglected. This International Workers’ Day, it is crucial that the world embrace the realization and celebrates the essential role that migrant workers play in the response to this crisis and beyond.

On behalf of hundreds of migrant workers from Nepal, and the many workers around the world like us, we urge governments in host and home countries, employers, business and civil society to put workers’ rights at heart of their response to the pandemic—not just because we need them, but because they need us too.