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COVID-19, an opportunity to build back better for women migrant workers

By Dr. Jean D’Cunha, Senior Global Advisor on International Migration, UN Women

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the systemic inequalities in our societal fabric and ethic that largely function off intersecting forms of discrimination, especially for women migrant workers. Women and girls constitute nearly half of the 272 million international migrants, and a large number of internal migrants. 8.5 million of the 11.8 million overseas migrant domestic workers and a majority of the 56 million local domestic workers worldwide are women. Women, comprise 70 percent of the global health workforce at the frontlines of response, many of whom are migrants.

Moreover, women’s contribution to all types of care, including unpaid care, amounts to $11 trillion globally (9 percent of global GDP). Protecting women and migrant women workers’ rights and supporting their full potential is critical to economic recovery. Despite this, economic packages invest inadequately in migrant women’s priorities, even though evidence also shows that the socio-economic impacts of the crisis are worse for women.

“Women migrant workers contribute by way of skills, labour, expenditures, culture, and remittances to countries of origin and employment, families and communities – making life possible and comfortable.”#DevMatters

Many migrant women work in the hardest-hit sectors – accommodation and food services, real estate, business and administrative activities, wholesale/retail trade and care – unsuitable for remote working. Already encumbered by labour-market and social disadvantages, women migrant workers have been disproportionately affected by job loss, reduced working hours and bankruptcy. For example, COVID-induced panic heightened xenophobia and abuse of migrant domestic workers, led to abrupt termination of work contracts. Many have become undocumented, with no income and access to basic amenities and services – housing, food, COVID-prevention information, hygiene products, healthcare – and were stranded while borders remained closed. Trapped in deep debt and their health imperilled, they also risked arrest, detention and deportation. Many other documented domestic workers were forcibly returned home before borders closed, after losing their jobs before their contracts expired, often without wage payments and entitlements. Lockdowns inhibited in-person remittance transfers, placing migrants and their dependents in dire straits.

Workloads, work hours, stress and abuse significantly increased for those live-in domestic workers who continued to be employed, owing to school closures, teleworking, employer obsession about COVID-related hygiene, family tensions and lock-in with abusers. Many domestic workers have had internet use restricted by employers, given the increased use and costs of internet services to employer families who were teleworking. This prevented them from communicating with families, friends, accessing hotlines for information, or sourcing assistance if abused.

Women migrant health care or domestic workers with inadequate or no protective gear, continue to be at high risk when caring for COVID-affected patients or family members or when sent on errands like pet-walking or to dispose garbage. Both documented and undocumented workers have had poor access to healthcare, even where governments introduced free testing facilities for all residents. Service providers were often unaware of coverage availability to undocumented migrant workers who in some cases were turned away. There was also a lack of clarity on who would cover the treatment costs if workers tested positive. Undocumented women workers continue to be at enormous risk of contracting COVID-19 as they often live in overcrowded rental living spaces, detention centres and shelters that lack COVID-prevention infrastructure.

COVID-19 is a wake-up call and an opportunity to build back better. Women migrant workers contribute by way of skills, labour, expenditures, culture, and remittances to countries of origin and employment, families and communities – making life possible and comfortable. Protecting them is the right thing to do, makes smart economic sense, and contributes to sustainable development and achieving gender equality.

“Many documented domestic workers were forcibly returned home before borders closed, after losing their jobs before their contracts expired, often without wage payments and entitlements.” #DevMatters

Embracing a whole of government and society approach, countries of origin and employment must include women migrant workers and their organisations in decision-making, draw on existing good practice and lessons learned, and implement gender responsive labour migration policies and programmes at scale:

  • Create fiscal space with the support of richer countries to invest in gender-responsive budgeting for the long haul. In the short term,investment must be made to protect migrant jobs and businesses through cash injections, and to ensure labour protection and universal social safety nets that include migrant workers. Investments should also enable the provision of services such as food, cash and income support, status regularisation, real time accessible COVID prevention information, free testing and treatment, including for violence on both sides of the border, in better equipped, infection controlled-environments. Migrant workers must be included in COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.
  • Generate sex-disaggregated data and undertake gender analysis on COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 labour market trends for local & migrant women & men
  • Implement gender-responsive programmes underscored by policies & standards on skills upgrading, recognition, and portability; ethical, well monitored e-recruitment through registered agencies/public-private-partnerships; portable social security & wage protection systems, including for domestic workers
  • Create more decent jobs and ensure labour law coverage aligned with ILO and CEDAW standards for women migrant workers, including domestic workers with strong monitoring, complaints and redress mechanisms.
  • Ensure that violence against women laws and comprehensive services also cover all migrant women, regardless of migration status, and implement initiatives to eliminate racial, nationality, and sexist othering
  • Expand regular migration pathways for women by liberalising emigration and immigration policies taking account of their specific impacts on women
  • Ensure effective implementation of MOUs and Bilateral Labour Agreements backed by enforcement and monitoring mechanisms, designed to protect women migrant workers
  • Provide alternatives to detention and deportation through regularisation programmes, safe, non-custodial community housing and safe, paid, dignified return.
  • Use Regional Consultative processes to address the above issues through coordinated action between governments and civil society from countries of origin and employment, supported by international and national organisations, including scalable initiatives to address women migrant worker priorities.

This article is based on webinar presentations by the author on behalf of UN Women on the fore-mentioned subject. It also draws on the Statement by UN Women and Women 20 to G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, “Women as drivers of economic recovery and resilience during COVID-19 and beyond”: Tuesday, July 14, 2020, pre G20 Summit.