This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery. This post was authored by Jeff Bond, associate director, Asia, Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS).
Even before COVID-19, overseas labor migrants were a vulnerable population. The pandemic has exacerbated their vulnerability—and their vulnerability, in turn, risks exacerbating the pandemic. While authorities, businesses, and civil society must address the urgent needs of migrant workers, they also must think beyond immediate needs and plan for the recovery phase. There is an opportunity to reshape migrant labor systems in a way that both reduces exploitation of migrant workers and mitigates future outbreaks.
Migrant labor vulnerability before the pandemic
Globally, there are an estimated 164 million migrant workers. One in four victims of forced labor is a migrant. This translates to millions of migrants in modern slavery and tens of millions more at risk. Many migrant workers have little education and few livelihood options. They often are in debt and belong to social groups that are further disadvantaged and marginalized, such as the rural poor, ethnic minorities, or scheduled castes.
The systems underpinning overseas labor migration exploit these vulnerabilities from end to end. Workers, desperate to improve their lives, are deceived into taking on inescapable debt to pay exorbitant fees to migrate and work for abusive employers in countries that extend them few rights.
COVID-19 increasing exposure to risk
COVID-19 has heightened existing vulnerabilities for migrant workers and introduced new risks. Many workers, trapped overseas or in transit, do not have access to basic human needs or health services. Many industries that employ migrant workers have seen near-total shutdowns and mass dismissals, leaving migrants and their dependents without incomes, in uncertain legal status, and unable to service debts.
In a recent study conducted by IST Research of 6,000 Filipino migrants working in GCC countries, 71 percent indicated they risked exposure to COVID-19 on the job. Across seventeen sector categories, 21 percent had limited access to food, 11 percent reported being forced to work, 14 percent were confined to their home, and 10 percent were confined to their job site. The majority of workers reported being unaware of any assistance or compensation being offered by home governments. Half of workers reported host governments were not offering assistance or compensation. Domestic workers, a majority female workforce, in particular appear to face increased risks. They were more likely to report new debts and working on rest days due to the crisis. In all but one destination site, they were more likely to report not being paid as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
The conditions migrant workers face in turn create a perfect storm for outbreaks. Unsafe working conditions and crowded dormitories do not allow for social distancing. Opaque, informal, and chaotic labor recruitment chains hinder rapid, data-driven responses to crises. Hidden populations, discouraged from engaging formal institutions, limit the reach of prevention and response efforts.
Taking action now
There are immediate actions that governments, private companies, civil society, and others can take to help migrant workers and fight COVID-19.
First, basic needs of migrant workers, such as safe, private quarters, must be met to prevent transmission among migrants and the broader population.
Second, communication with migrant workers about their rights, access to services, and safety must be expanded. Lack of information is a problem for migrant workers in normal times. The ramifications are even greater now.
Third, grievance processes must remain accessible during COVID-19 restrictions. Grievance mechanisms can also serve as important sources of data to guide pandemic responses.
Lastly, reintegration service providers need to prepare for a surge of returning victims. Providers will need increased capacity and will need to be ready to handle cases of individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19.
Preparing for a responsible recovery
Eventually, the global economy will recover and market demand will return. To meet demand, firms will need to hire workers, causing international labor migration to ramp back up. We can work now to reform and improve migrant labor recruitment systems.
Labor recruitment systems were ripe for disruption even before COVID-19. Legacy technologies and processes, informal operators, poor data, little automation, low transparency, and pervasive corruption typify the current systems. The crisis exposes their weaknesses and creates opportunities to build a modernized labor migration regime that is safer, more transparent, and more efficient. Such improvements would serve both the fight against modern slavery and the goal of preventing future outbreaks.
At GFEMS, we are designing and deploying strategic programs that intervene across the entire labor recruitment system, pulling the levers necessary to reduce the supply of vulnerable migrant workers, increase demand for ethical recruitment and employment, and improve rule of law and regulations pertaining to labor migration and recruitment.
Reforming and modernizing labor recruitment systems
On the "supply" side, further investment in initiatives that reduce root vulnerabilities in migrant communities is needed. Interventions might include behavioral change campaigns, economic empowerment, reintegration services, and activities that address distrust of formal institutions. In a post-COVID-19 world, such interventions have heightened value, as they can prepare migrants for pandemic-type situations and buffer against the effects.
On the "demand" side, the ethical recruitment movement needs increased and continued support. Employers and recruiters need to be encouraged and supported to adopt ethical recruitment practices, as defined by international standards (ILO Fair Recruitment, IOM IRIS, and the Dhaka Principles). Disruptive ethical recruitment startups and technologies need funding to apply pressure from a different direction. In addition to creating safe migration channels for workers to prevent them from falling into modern slavery, ethical recruitment requires a high level of organizational effectiveness and transparency, two traits that should be minimum requirements post-COVID-19.
To improve the "environment" that enables exploitation of labor migrants, we must push for improvements in the rule of law and regulations pertaining to labor migration and recruitment. Policies should encourage ethical recruitment and punish bad actors. Investments should be made in smarter labor migration infrastructure. More integrated and automated labor migration systems can generate rich data and make processes faster, cheaper, and more effective. All of these "environmental" improvements will also have the effect of enhancing state capacity to prevent and manage pandemic-type events.
There is a danger that some reactionary responses will make matters worse. Brute restrictions on labor migration will not stop desperate populations from migrating. They will just drive riskier migration. Responsible tracking can easily turn into repressive surveillance. Clumsy regulation of recruitment agencies can have unintended side effects. Businesses will be under financial pressure and tempted to save money in the short-term by sourcing through unethical recruiters. These risks should be acknowledged, but should not dissuade us from intervening. If anything, they should be seen as more reason to act now and plan for a responsible recovery.
A responsible recovery will not be easy. Inertia and vested interests are powerful forces in favor of the status quo. But in the post-COVID-19 world, governments may have new incentives to make improvements. Businesses will have to invest in re-establishing labor supply chains, and some are already showing willingness to embrace new ideas. These conditions do not guarantee success, but they do hint at a window of opportunity.