A Pandemic Reset for Migrant Workers

Spotlight Migration and COVID-19: The pandemic as opportunity for a new social contract ensuring decent work for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic bias that allows our neoliberal economic system to define some categories of work and workers –including migrant workers – as expendable. Yet, in revealing these systemic injustices, it also creates an opportunity to progress toward a new social contract that respects the fundamental rights of all workers, regardless of immigration status. Societies around the world have been forced to recognize their dependence on workers who had been conveniently invisible and grossly undervalued. Now they must respond with more than mere applause in the streets. Real recovery will require states to address centuries of discrimination that have created precarity for millions of workers and migrants by building a new economic model that promotes decent work for all.

This article will assess the impact of the current global crises on decent work, with a particular focus on migrant workers. The decent work agenda is comprehensive, with four key pillars: standards and rights at work, employment opportunities, social protection and social dialogue. Migrants face elevated challenges within each of these pillars, which we analyse briefly before closing with recommendations.

Standards and rights at work

While migrants work across the wage and skill spectrum, they are disproportionately represented in the informal economy and in jobs with low pay and poor working conditions. For example, forthcoming ILO research identifies the high rate of informal employment among migrant workers, with nearly 75 per cent of migrant women and 70 per cent of migrant men working in the informal economy in many low and middle-income countries. The work migrants do, often characterised as dirty, dangerous, and demeaning under normal circumstances, has become even more precarious and unsafe amidst the pandemic. Most countries have failed to adequately protect essential workers and many are finding new ways to limit or suspend their labour protections.

Migrant workers, including workers in temporary visa programs, had few rights and little access to justice before the pandemic. Now, employers are taking advantage of structural vulnerabilities to rob workers of their earned wages or force them to work in unsafe conditions, often under threat of deportation. Agricultural migrant work programs in the United States and other destination countries continue and even expand without adequate health and safety provisions. Millions of other migrants, for example cruise ship workers or domestic and construction workers in the Middle East, have been benched from their jobs and left with no income or way to return home.

Some European states have announced temporary visa extensions or amnesties to allow undocumented migrants to fill necessary jobs. Such provisional measures may grant workers temporary rights, but they are largely designed to benefit the emergency economy.  They do nothing to support unemployed migrants and fall far short of the permanent protections workers need and deserve.

Employment opportunities

The pandemic has also exposed the dangers of origin countries relying on labour migration in lieu of creating decent work at home. As migrant workers return en masse, it is evident that countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka are ill-prepared to respond and provide jobs to their citizens. Shrinking migrant remittances hit origin country economies hard, and families dependent on remittances often face food insecurity and other hardships. Governments that rely on labour emigration and the associated remitted income to reduce unemployment and sustain the economy are now struggling.

Despite the heightened risks of the pandemic, origin governments are already urging their citizens to go abroad again to resume work. The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, for example, is making plans to send migrants back to the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia without first securing greater protections for their citizens abroad. Even when governments do not actively encourage out-migration, the lack of decent work at home compels millions of workers to migrate, and those push factors are only exacerbated by the current crises. Work in low-wage sectors dependent on global supply chains, like the garment industry, is severely affected by lockdowns and closures of economies. These realities will force more workers to consider risky migration routes to reach precarious work opportunities to provide for their families.

The lack of decent work opportunities at home and abroad are also pushing increasing numbers of workers and migrants into the informal economy and gig work. For instance, many Venezuelan migrants in Latin America rely on insecure work through Uber and other service platforms to survive. Estimates are that 60-80% of informal workers could see their livelihoods destroyed by the crisis, so recovery efforts must promote secure employment (in both origin and destination countries) to reverse these alarming trends.

Social protection

Amidst the pandemic, many governments are explicitly excluding migrant workers from emergency relief packages, increasing risks for migrants and all those who live and work alongside them. Even prior to the crisis, migrant and informal workers were often denied vital protections like social security, unemployment benefits and healthcare. A COVID-19 response can only be effective if it reduces the risk of transmission and ensures medical treatment for the entire population. Without access to income replacement benefits migrants will have no choice but to accept work in unsafe conditions or to continue working despite experiencing symptoms.

These discriminatory exclusions do not only affect irregular migrants. The dominant model of temporary labour migration programs structurally denies migrant workers’ basic rights and social protections, as does their overrepresentation in precarious jobs. Moreover, destination countries are shirking their obligations by deporting or returning migrant workers who have been infected with COVID.  At least a thousand migrants have returned to Ethiopia infected from their work in the Gulf or other parts of Africa, often after being rounded up and detained. Disposing of workers in this fashion further strains already struggling health systems in origin countries, and also reinforces dangerous notions that migrants are a source of contagion.

Social dialogue

This moment demands a paradigm shift, and migrant workers must be part of conversation to shape better approaches. Declaring often undervalued jobs to be essential has elevated the risk faced by workers in those positions, but has also increased their bargaining power. Workers around the world, many of them migrants, are engaging in inspiring levels of collective action and have exacted hard-fought gains in pay and conditions by withholding, or threatening to withhold, their essential labour. Strikes led by union and non-union workers are demanding fair compensation and safety in fields, warehouses, hospitals and schools, as well as safety for Black lives.

Such actions are critical to a sustainable recovery because they protect the lives and livelihoods of workers, as well as the health of consumers and community members. As corporations push for immunity from obligations to protect their workforce and customers, the corrective power of worker agency to check corporate greed takes on elevated societal significance. For example, UNITE HERE, an immigrant-dense hospitality union in the United States, has developed a platform to expose pandemic safety practices at major casinos. At a time of unprecedented health risks, consumers and workers whose lives are at stake have aligned interest in holding businesses accountable for responsible operations.  

Such dynamics make it clear that we all benefit from social dialogue. Preventing workers from negotiating for a fair share of the wealth they help generate serves as its own form of austerity that threatens to accelerate economic contraction and widen inequalities to destabilizing levels. However, the majority of the world’s workers, particularly those migrants in irregular status, those in the informal economy, and the millions of migrant workers in structurally-flawed temporary migration programs, face severe restrictions on their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. How states respond to the groundswell of worker collective action will be a key determinant of the trajectory of global recovery efforts.


The pandemic has greatly increased the stakes for the fair implementation of the UN Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. It has exposed the hypocrisy and indecency of treating migrant workers both as essential and expendable. States must chart a path forward that honours the universality of the normative framework of the UN and emphasises the core labour standards of the ILO.  This can never be accomplished in a system that perpetuates two-tier labour markets where an underclass of migrant workers are left without guarantees of freedom of association, collective bargaining, safe workplaces, social safety nets and other vital protections.

Now is the time for transformation of our global economic model, not a return to business as usual. Decent work for all is both a means and an end for those who seek to exit our current crisis stronger. Decent work enshrines universal rights, generates economic growth, promotes public health and social cohesion, and reduces racial, gender and status inequities that undermine our democratic institutions. These shifts are essential to recovery and to building an economy that works for all of us, without exception.


From crisis comes opportunity, which is why the labour movement is calling for a new social contract, with no exclusions. That will require states to build an economic model that addresses all the pillars of decent work and centres the needs of the most marginalized workers, including migrants of all status, through measures that include the following:

  • Establish and enforce strong, clear safety and health standards for all types of work and workplaces
  • Moving away from exploitative temporary migration programs toward models that ensure full rights, equal treatment and a path to permanence
  • Reject calls for corporate immunity for failing to protect workers and require employers to pay into a fund to insure against wage theft
  • Invest in the public sector, infrastructure, expansionary job creation, green economic solutions and the care economy; with a particular emphasis on the creation of decent work in origin communities
  • Ensure comprehensive social protections and end any restrictions for migrants to access health services, social security, worker’s compensation or other life-supporting benefits
  • Include all types of work and workers under the full protection of labour and employment laws
  • Remove barriers to freedom of association, including through regularisation and explicit protections for migrants seeking to exercise their fundamental labour rights
  • Support the creation of a global social protection fund and a universal labour guarantee for all workers



As director of immigration policy for the AFL-CIO, Shannon Lederer works with unions and allies in all sectors of the U.S. labor movement to advance policies that promote workers' rights and shared prosperity.  She supports activities ranging from legislative advocacy to campaigns for citizenship, organizing and collective bargaining. In her 20 years in the labor movement, she has also worked closely with the ITUC and global unions on cross-border efforts to more effectively represent and defend workers who are on the move.

Neha Misra, J.D., is the Senior Specialist for Migration and Human Trafficking at the Solidarity Center, the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization. With over 20 years’ experience in the labor movement, Neha has managed labor migration, anti-human trafficking, trade union strengthening and democracy programs around the world. She leads the Center’s migration policy engagement globally, working closely with the global labour movement and other allies. Before joining the Solidarity Center, she worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina on postwar elections and democracy, and in the United States as a senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

This article is part of a series of articles by the Global Coalition on Migration and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on international migration during the COVID-19 pandemic. they analyse the impact of the pandemic on international migrants protection highlighting the various human rights instruments, international law, the global compact and treaties that protect the rights of migrants. The articles focus on various topics such as; gender, labor, regularization,race, xenophobia, security, borders, access to services and detention.