International Migrants Day

Migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis

International Migrants Day

Migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis

As we mark International Migrants Day on 18 December, we put attention on how the COVID-19 pandemic has put a heavy toll on migrant workers around the globe. A recent report by the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) outlined how governments and social security institutions have made efforts to include migrant workers in social protection responses to the crisis.

The ISSA has made social security responses to the pandemic one of its main priorities, working with social security institutions to share and build on national and institutional approaches and good practices. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable. On the one hand, movement across borders affects migrant workers’ access to social security. On the other hand, migrant workers are overrepresented in informal and precarious jobs. When a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic hits society and economy, they are therefore among the first to suffer.

According to the ILO, around 500 million full-time equivalent jobs were lost by mid-2020, and around 2.2 billion workers, or 70 per cent of the global labour force, are touched by lockdown measures. Knowing that 164 million migrant workers represent 4.7 per cent of the global labour force, a modest estimation indicates that more than 111 million migrant workers are affected.

The spotlight series report Social protection for migrant workers: A necessary response to the Covid-19 crisis, published by the ISSA and ILO in June 2020, outlines the challenges faced by migrant workers and how governments and social security institutions have addressed the situation. The report highlights the impact of job losses on social insurance coverage and points to the importance of ensuring social protection for all. Analysing short-term responses, including related to health, financial support and occupational safety, the report draws conclusions for the longer-term perspective on how to improve the social protection coverage for migrant workers.

Loss of jobs and social protection

Migrants are overrepresented in many frontline occupations, in particular in the healthcare, cleaning services and agriculture, where they have greater exposure to the virus. Additionally business closures and restrictions to movement, combined with lack of, or limited, access to social protection, increased migrants’ vulnerability.

The impacts of the crisis affects migrants differently, depending on their migratory and working status. Faced with unemployment, wage cuts, suspensions and deteriorating work conditions, regular migrants in formal jobs might be access to all or certain benefits of social protection, while the others are faced with little or no support. In particular, the lack of access to health services can be critical in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic not only for the migrant and his/her family, but also for society as a whole due to the risk of spreading the virus.

Ensuring basic social protection for all

In line with established international goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the ISSA and the ILO work towards social protection for all. With the support of international, regional and civil society organizations, governments and social security institutions have reacted to address and mitigate the social and economic impact of the crisis. Parts of the responses include social protection for migrant workers. All migrants, regardless of their type of migration or legal status, need access to some sort of social protection, and to provide it, collaboration is required from origin, transit and destination countries alike.

Bilateral and multilateral agreements to coordinate social security schemes between countries are key to ensuring access to social protection for migrant workers. For the particular case of frontier workers – workers living in one state and working in another – and given the mandatory telework provisions introduced by many countries, a number of governments in the European Union agreed to adopt special measures to prevent changes in their social security status.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the fundamental role of social protection in tackling major social and economic crisis, and the crucial importance of establishing social protection floors for everyone, including migrant workers. Further to the immediate crisis response, renewed attention needs to be given to the ratification and implementation of relevant international standards, such as the ILO Conventions and Recommendations in the area of social protection and the negotiation of bilateral, regional and multilateral social security agreements. In addition, national strategies, policies, legal frameworks and administrative systems should be developed. To support the development and implementation of social security schemes for migrant workers, the ISSA Guidelines on Coverage Extension are the recognized international professional reference.