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COVID-19: Impact on Migrant Workers in Asia and the Pacific

Experiences in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (where many Asian workers reside), and elsewhere, have demonstrated that migrant workers are among the vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic for a variety of reasons:

  • Living conditions for many do not favour social distancing;
  • Some migrant workers continued to work because of need or employer compulsions and they are worked in close proximity, and without sufficient personal protection equipment;
  • Unlike nationals, migrant workers are generally not included in social security vis-a-vis unemployment insurance (de jure or de facto); Migrant workers are not being included in relief measures;
  • Migrant workers may be the first to be retrenched;
  • Gender-based violence tends to increase during emergencies (hotlines responding to violence against migrant women have reported an increase in calls);
  • Border and international travel closures have stranded migrant workers who may completed their contracts or lost their jobs;
  • Undocumented workers have been subject to detention in unsafe conditions.

Some of these vulnerabilities reflect structural flaws in the Asian model of labour migration, which is followed by most countries in the continent, with one or two exceptions. The migrant worker admission and employment model implemented in Asia and in the GCC countries is based on liberal entry, restricted rights and limited sojourn.

The relatively liberal entry has brought benefits to many, including migrants and their families, employers and economies. However, a system of restricted rights has inflicted poor living and working conditions on many migrants, and has been faulted for low wages and has contributed to high migration costs for many workers.

Even if migrants double what they were earning before migration, wages for migrant workers in high-income countries, like Singapore and the Gulf States, are low. A statutory minimum wage and robust workers’ organizations are key to addressing this.

As we have seen magnified during the pandemic, the lodgings for many migrant workers are not adequate. The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2018) recognizes “migrant workers have the right to adequate or reasonable accommodation”. ILO Recommendation 115 on Workers Housing (1961) states as a general principle: The competent authority should, in order to ensure structural safety and reasonable levels of decency, hygiene and comfort, establish minimum housing standards in light of local conditions and take appropriate measures to enforce these standards.

Going forward, fair wages, equal treatment in social protection and decent living conditions for women and men migrant workers should be key considerations in high-income countries in Asia and the GCC when admitting migrants and during their employment.

The recognition of domestic work as work, as well as putting top priority on safety from violence for women through quality essential services (shelters, hotlines, counselling, health and law enforcement) are vital.

In the Pacific, seasonal workers have not been able to depart for work to Australia and New Zealand due to border closures and suspension of flights. At the same time, many workers in countries of destination who have completed their contracts have not been able to return. There has been no specific financial support available for these workers, but some have been able to continue their employment by re-deploying with a new employer (Pacific Climate Change Migration and Human Security Programme, Impacts of COVID-19 on Labour Mobility in the Pacific Region, August 2020).

Hence, in the Pacific too, the vulnerability of workers migrating through temporary migration schemes has been exposed by the pandemic. The crisis has made plainly visible that they lack the social safety nets provided to other workers. The Brief on the Impacts of COVID-19 on Labour Mobility in the Pacific Region prepared by the Pacific Climate Change Migration and Human Security Programme, puts forward some short, medium and long-term key considerations and recommendations on the way forward.

Nilim Baruah, Senior Migration Specialist, Decent Work Team, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok.


ILO Publications:
  1. Experiences of ASEAN migrant workers during COVID-19: Rights at work, migration and quarantine during the pandemic, and re-migration plans Download
  2. COVID-19 and women migrant workers in ASEAN Download
  3. Protecting the rights of domestic workers in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond Download
  4. COVID-19: Impact on migrant workers and country response in Malaysia Download
  5. COVID-19: Impact on migrant workers and country response in Thailand Download
  6. COVID-19: Impact on migrant workers and country response in Myanmar Download
  7. COVID-19: Impact on migrant workers and country response in Cambodia Download
  8. Impact of COVID-19 on Nepali Migrant Workers: Protecting Nepali Migrant Workers during the Health and Economic Crisis Download
  9. Ensuring fair recruitment during the COVID-19 pandemic Download
  10. EU-ILO Joint Webinar on Migration during COVID-19 Download
  11. Social protection for migrant workers: A necessary response to the COVID-19 crisis Download
  12. Seasonal Migrant Workers’ Schemes: Rethinking Fundamental Principles and Mechanisms in light of COVID-19 Download
  13. COVID-19 impact on child labour and forced labour: The response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme Download
  14. Protecting migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic Download
  15. Labour migration at the time of COVID-19 Download


International Organization for Migration (IOM) Publications:
  1. Rapid Assessment of the Socioeconomic Impacts of COVID-19 on Labour Mobility in the Pacific Region Download
  2. COVID-19: Guidance for employers and business to enhance migrant worker protection during the current health crisis Download
  3. COVID-19 Crisis Response: IOM Publishes COVID-19 Guidance for Employers and Labour Recruiters Download
  4. Labour recruiter rapid assessment Download
  5. Asia Pacific Government Response Overview - 01 July 2020 Download
  6. Employer Survey Assessing The Impact of COVID-19 On Migrant Workers In International Supply Chains Download
  7. COVID-19 places migrant workers in highly vulnerable situations Download
  8. Global IOM COVID-19 response appeal (as of 15 April 2020) Download
  9. COVID-19 Emerging Immigration, Consular and Visa Needs & Recommendations Download
  10. IOM Statement on COVID-19 and Mobility Download
  11. COVID-19: How to include marginalized and vulnerable people in risk communication and community engagement Download
  12. COVID-19 and mixed population movements: Emerging dynamics, risks and opportunities A UN-HCR/IOM discussion paper Download
  13. Bangladesh - Brief on COVID-19 for migrant workers (Bengali) Download
  14. Bangladesh - Flyer on COVID-19 for migrant workers (Bengali) Download
  15. Malaysia - Poster on COVID-19 for migrant workers in Malaysia (English, Vietnamese) Download
  16. Malaysia: Let's talk facts (multiple languages) Download
  17. Thailand - Leaflet on COVID-19 (Thai) Download
  18. Thailand - Infosheet for migrant workers whose job is affected by COVID-19 (English) Download
  19. Thailand - Infosheet for Employers of Domestic Workers during COVID-19 (English) Download
  20. Thailand - Flyer on self-quarantine after leaving Bangkok (Thai) Download
  21. Viet Nam - Flyer on travel advisory (Vietnamese and English) Download
  22. Viet Nam - Flyer on public health (Vietnamese, English) Download
  23. Global IOM - Flyer on COVID-19 for migrants (multiple languages) Download
  24. IOM’s Global Crisis Response Platform Download
  25. COVID-19 Mobility Restrictions Download
  26. COVID-19 Analytical Snapshots Download


(IOM) Migration Data Portal

National preparedness and response plans for COVID-19 and other diseases: Why migrants should be included Download
Migration data relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic Download

    (IOM) Migration Health Research Portal Migration Health Evidence Portal for COVID-19 Download


    Other UN Publications:

    1. UN Women Guidance note: Addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women migrant workers Download
    2. World Bank Potential Responses to the COVID-19 Outbreak in Support of Migrant Workers (June 19, 2020) (English) Download
    3. UNDRR Asia-Pacific COVID-19 Brief: Reducing Vulnerability of Migrants and Displaced Populations Download
    4. FAO Migrant workers and the COVID-19 pandemic (FAO) Download
    5. UNESCAP The Impact and Policy Responses for COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific Download
    6. IMF Lifelines in Danger: The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to dry up a vital source of income for poor and fragile countries Download
    7. OHCHR COVID-19 Position paper - The impact and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on trafficked and exploited persons Download
    8. GBV AoR COVID-19 Impact on Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the Middle East Download
    9. KNOMAD Migration and Development Brief 32: COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens Download


    Other Publications:

    1. ADB Migrant Workers and Remittances in the Time of Pandemic Download
    2. ADB COVID-19 Impact on International Migration, Remittances, and Recipient Households in Developing Asia Download
    3. Solidarity Centre Migrant Workers Essential Workers Not Only In COVID-19 Download
    4. Ethical Trading Initiative COVID-19: Migrant workers briefing Download
    5. Institute for Human Rights and Business The Compounding Impacts of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers Across Asia (Pt 1) Download
    6. Institute for Human Rights and Business Accommodating the Spread – Migrant Worker Accommodation Driving COVID Infections (Pt 2) Download
    7. Institute for Human Rights and Business Pandemic Prejudice – COVID-19 and Discriminatory Attitudes Towards Migrant Workers (Pt 3) Download
    8. Institute for Human Rights and Business Losing More Than Their Health – COVID-19 and Migrant Worker Wage Theft (Pt 4) Download
    9. Institute for Human Rights and Business Development Denied – Recruitment Fees Eroding Migrant Worker Remittances (Pt 5) Download
    10. Institute for Human Rights and Business Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment South East Asia Chapter Member Update on Countries of Focus: Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in South East Asia Download
    11. The Clean Clothes Campaign Live-blog: How the Coronavirus affects garment workers in supply chains Download
    12. Center on International Cooperation, New York University, Principles of Protection for Migrants, Refugees, and Displaced People During COVID-19 Download
    13. International Labor Rights Forum COVID-19 Impact on Migrant Workers in Thailand Download
    14. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre World Cup & Expo 2020 Construction: COVID-19 & Risks to Migrant Workers in Qatar & the UAE Download
    15. Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) Mayors Mechanism and Activities on COVID-19 Download

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