Govt, Civil Society & Trade Unions Must Protect Returning Migrants, Says ILO Specialist
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Govt, Civil Society & Trade Unions Must Protect Returning Migrants, Says ILO Specialist

Limited social protection and lack of re-integration policy will hurt returning migrants

Speaking exclusively with The Lede, Shabari Nair, Regional Migration Specialist, Decent Work Technical Support Team (DWT) for South Asia and India at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that workers in India will suffer job losses and recovery of sectors in India will be slow.

He details that the returning Indian migrants are landing in wrecked domestic job market, which offers limited social protection and an almost non-existent re-integration policy environment.

Here is the full interview.

1. What is the ILO situation assessment so far of the impact of COVID- 19 on jobs globally and in South Asia?

ILO has published three monitoring updates so far. According to the recent update, global working hours in the second quarter are expected to be 10.5% lower than in the last pre-crisis quarter. This is equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs, which represents a significant increase on ILO’s previous estimate of 195 million.

Almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers, or 76% of informal employment worldwide are significantly impacted by the current crisis. In the context of India, ILO monitors have mentioned that about 400 million people working in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty due to stringent lockdown measures implemented in the country.

Among those women are over-represented. In the first month of the crisis, average earnings for informal workers are estimated to decline by 60% globally.

Taking together employers and own-account workers, around 436 million enterprises in the hardest-hit sectors worldwide are currently facing high risks of serious disruption. Approximately 47 million employers, some 54% of all employers worldwide, operate businesses in the hardest-hit sectors of manufacturing, accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade and real estate and business activities.

ILO predicts that recovery will be slow. Even once containment measures are lifted, surviving enterprises will continue to face challenges given that the recovery is likely to be uncertain and slow. Restarting businesses will require significant adjustments with cost implications, including securing safe work environments.

Shabari Nair, Regional Migration Specialist, ILO
Shabari Nair, Regional Migration Specialist, ILO

2. What has been the ILO’s assessment on the migrant situation, particularly towards the migrant workers from South Asia and India living and working in the Gulf region?

Significant job losses in the private sector of the Middle East countries have forced south Asian migrant workers to return home. They are largely engaged in the lower to medium-skilled employment categories, mainly in the construction sector.

Nationalisation of the public sector announced in some of the Gulf countries will further fuel these job losses. Bangladesh, India and Nepal are some of the South Asian countries expecting strong reverse migration trends.

As per a recent IMF report, over 500,000 Bangladeshis (including those working in Europe and elsewhere) have already returned. In India, we are currently witnessing the largest evacuation of its kind.

South Asian countries will witness uneven impact of returning migrants based on the proportion of remittances in their national income. A World Bank report states that remittances worldwide will decrease by at least 25%. For instance, Nepal is highly dependent on remittances (about 27% of its GDP as per 2019 estimates), whereas in India, the remittances forms only about 2.5% of the national GDP.

However, in India, the disparity will persist among states. Kerala, which is expecting over 300,000 returning migrants and has remittance as a major share of state’s income, will face financial and social ripples of the situation.

The returning migrants are landing in to wrecked domestic job market, offering limited social protection and almost non-existent reintegration policy environment.

3. What measures must we consider for the re-integration of the returning migrants in South Asia?

The re-integration policies usually take into consideration voluntary returns, however, here the circumstances have cornered migrant workers to return with no surety to be employed in the destination country again. On urgent basis, a mapping and integration exercise is needed to support these returning migrants. They are a skilled and experienced work force. The local employment policies can be tweaked to absorb these workers in to the existing labour market. Inclusion in income guarantee and social protection scheme can provide migrant workers and their families to come over the financial losses incurred in the process of returning.

The state should be mindful of social integration of returning migrants, as the stigma around them being possible carriers of infection could increase their troubles.

4. Could you please share three ideas that Kerala, which receives Rs 2 lakh crore annually, can adopt to overcome the crisis of Keralites returning?

First, a mapping of the 14 districts in Kerala would help identify the region with the most number of vulnerable returning workers and support them with targeted interventions. For instance, most returning migrants from Malappuram district of Kerala to the Gulf worked in the low-skilled and less-paid sectors. This includes migrant women domestic workers. The livelihoods of a number of people in this district were also affected as a result of the floods in 2018. This has a compounded effect on the local economy and income levels.

The relief could be in the form of systematic investments in MSMEs with a plan for integration of returnees having relevant skills and experiences, including the domestic workers.

Second, Kerala has successfully contained the COVID-19 infections because of its robust public health systems and well trained health workers, particularly the nurses. The state is also one of the largest sending state of nurses, who are now forced to return home. The state can further strengthen its health system by absorbing this workforce in primary health centres, medical colleges and private hospitals.

Third, Kerala also has a vibrant social dialogue ecosystem where government, trade unions and employers come together to define solutions. Indeed, this is also a moment for Kerala to apply the social dialogue model to support returnee migrant workers.

5. What role can trade unions and civil societies play in the new world order to better the prospects of workers in the post COVID-19 era?

The concerted action of governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations in developing COVID-19 policy responses can help to address labour market issues. It could prioritise healthy and safe working conditions, support businesses and small enterprises to survive, extend social protection to vulnerable groups, and ensure employment opportunities for migrant workers.

We should all work towards not only supporting a whole-of-government approach but also ensuring a whole-of-society approach in reviewing, defining and implementing laws and policies pertaining to migration and migrant workers.

Trade unions have an important role in organising returning workers specially to advocate for their rights and to support state in uphold international and national labour standards.

Civil society organisations have an important role in acting as first responders when migrant workers need assistance. They are familiar with the work life of migrants including women.

Migrant workers’ inclusion in national COVID-19 policy responses can help to ensure the realisation of equality and social justice. On priority, all migrant workers, including those who may have become undocumented or are in irregular status, should have access to legal remedies for unfair treatment.

They should be able to negotiate for their rights including reduced or non-payment of wages, denial of other entitlements and workplace discrimination, and should have access to legal advice and language interpretation services where necessary.

Both trade unions and civil society organisations have important roles to play in addressing these issues.

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