Another International Workers’ Day may be upon us, but I’m not sure global migrant workers will feel like celebrating this year. Despite migrant communities’ key role in many economies, laborers around the world continue to endure unsafe working conditions that make many vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, the global pandemic hit migrant workers harder than most, with COVID-19 exacerbating safety issues while also disrupting key labor markets and population mobility.
Migrant workers make up a majority of temporary, seasonal, or informal employment opportunities that are crucial to global industries like agriculture, construction, shipping, in-home care, and more. Many of these jobs are considered “unskilled” labor, a term that has been used to keep pay low and underscore the importance of these jobs.
The global pandemic forced many countries to reexamine which jobs are necessary to the functioning of society and the economy. The jobs migrant workers fulfill were predominantly deemed essential, and yet conditions remain inadequate for migrant communities around the world.
In Europe, migrant workers were acknowledged as essential to farming and the food industry. This allowed some laborers to cross borders closed to most. However, their status did not inspire employers to improve working conditions. Instead, many laborers continued to face inhumane working conditions, low wages, and overcrowded living corridors.
In 2020, migrant workers accounted for 93% of Singapore’s 58,000 COVID cases. Predominantly South Asian laborers live in cramped dormitories that house tens of thousands of people throughout the country, which has accelerated the spread amongst the country’s migrant workers and even taken a toll on their mental health.
Canada and the United States also have robust migrant worker populations. In 2020, much of these populations endured severe risk of contagion, wage theft, inadequate housing and food, lack of PPE, unsafe work conditions, and racism and xenophobia. In California, an agriculture and farming hub in the U.S., workers had to contend with COVID outbreaks and a grueling wildfire season made worse by climate change.
Some communities have used social media to draw attention to their plight. In the Gulf, domestic workers, a majority of whom have migrated from Africa and Asia, are calling their employers out via TikTok videos that detail how they are overworked, sexually harassed, and discriminated against. Some in-home care workers are also unable to leave their job or the country without permission from their employers, which can make workers more vulnerable to abuse. In fact, there are 24.9 million people around the world trapped in forced labor, including 16 million people in private sectors like domestic work, construction, or agriculture.
Activists, global nonprofits, and other advocacy groups are calling upon governments to make lasting changes. Some experts have demanded more legislature around legal systems of migration. This includes work visa programs that actually protect migrant workers from employer retaliation, deportation, and workplace abuses. Work visa programs are also ways to implement wage, housing, and healthcare reform so that laborers are compensated fairly. And, of course, the application process for any visas should be made more accessible to workers.
In the U.S., President Biden did not renew a ban on H-1B and other temporary work-based visas put in place by the Trump administration to prevent migrant workers from entering the country. In addition, Biden increased the number of seasonal guest-worker visas available this year by 22,000. Typically, there are 66,000 H-2B visas available to workers. These efforts join Biden’s ambitious immigration overhaul, which includes the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to increase legal immigration and allow all undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship, amongst other initiatives. However, this legislation hasn’t passed yet.
Despite the pivotal role migrant laborers play in global economies, many communities continue to face exorbitant abuse in working, housing, and living conditions. It seems obvious that radical reform and changes need to be made in order to ensure migrant workers receive basic human respect. With how far the labor movement has come to protect the rights of workers, there is still much to be done to protect the rights of all workers. And that is what International Workers’ Day reminds all of us this year.
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