Walk Free Report Examines COVID-19’s Impact on Vulnerable Workers

17 June 2020
Research Innovation

Serena Grant  | Business and Engagement Lead, the Walk Free initiative of the Minderoo Foundation

Walk Free’s latest report, Protecting People in a Pandemic, examines key risks that COVID-19 presents for migrant and other vulnerable workers. The report provides practical guidance and current examples of measures that business and government can take to mitigate those risks.

The report is based on a “rapid assessment” of emerging news, publications and grey literature. This involved a review of global news articles, recommendations and statements published by civil society groups, international agencies and businesses. Interviews were conducted with business representatives and civil society groups from across the United States, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific region.

COVID-19 and Vulnerable Workers

Millions of vulnerable workers do not have access to COVID-19 testing, health care, sick leave or the physical or financial ability to isolate. Many have lost jobs and are stranded overseas, unable to support themselves or return home due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. The combination of these health, safety and economic risks creates the perfect storm for exploitation, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery to flourish. It is also likely to significantly impede the sustainable development agenda, including the aim to end all forms of modern slavery under Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We know that COVID-19 does not discriminate, and yet governments continue to exclude vulnerable workers—including migrant workers, undocumented workers and those in the “informal” economy—from accessing support. Many are expected to continue working through the pandemic and yet excluded from access to health care, protective equipment, government COVID-19 relief packages and other social protections. As a result, many vulnerable workers cannot comply with social distancing and isolation measures or are unable to access testing or health care when ill, thereby increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission across the entire population. These gaps in protection are, therefore, directly in conflict with government efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, and urgent business and government action is required to address them.

Beyond the COVID-19 health risks, the economic impacts of the crisis will not only threaten livelihoods but also, in some cases, lives. An estimated 195 million full-time jobs could be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many migrant workers are highly vulnerable to economic shocks, with little or no savings, large debts and no social safety net. Front-line organizations are reporting that there is a real risk of starvation as workers are unable to buy food for themselves or their families. This will increase vulnerability to exploitation and modern slavery. In particular, as lockdowns and travel bans make it impossible to find alternative sources of income, many will take on high interest loans, which increases the risk of debt bondage.

While many businesses are doing what they can to protect workers in their supply chains, many are falling short. Some businesses fighting for their own financial survival are leaving workers without jobs or other protections. This crisis raises serious questions about the true cost of labour and the need for systemic change to address gaps in the protection of workers’ rights.

Looking forward, the disruption to global supply chains and migration pathways also presents an opportunity. As the crisis passes, we must rethink the systems and structures that have created these risks and address gaps in protection for vulnerable populations. Walk Free is committed to working with civil society, businesses and governments to explore these longer-term challenges and solutions in the weeks and months ahead.

Snapshot of Key Risks to Vulnerable Workers

  • Workers are stranded without means to support themselves or their families, resulting in grave health and humanitarian risks.
  • Cramped living and working conditions and restricted access to testing, health care and sick leave increases risk of COVID-19 community transmission.
  • Women are on the front lines of the crisis and are at an increased risk of exploitation.
  • Xenophobia and discrimination may lead to increased violence and exploitation.
  • Widespread job losses, the shutdown of regular migration pathways and reduced scrutiny of labour standards increases vulnerability to human trafficking and modern slavery.

Action Plan to Protect Vulnerable Workers

Collaboration between business and government is essential to protect vulnerable workers. Business and government should work together, liaising with civil society and worker groups to:

  • Clearly communicate—in accessible languages—information and policies relating to COVID-19, including symptoms, testing, how to access health care, isolation measures and relevant government benefits and relief packages.
  • Assess and respond to emergency situations as they arise, including the protection and/or repatriation of workers who are stranded and unable to support themselves or access basic necessities.

Business should:

  • Health: Facilitate access to testing and health care. Provide personal protective equipment and ensure employer-provided accommodation and working conditions are hygienic and safe.
  • Pay, benefits and support: Ensure pay, overtime, sick leave and other statutory benefits are paid to workers. Facilitate access to government support or consider emergency relief for those not covered.
  • Repatriation: Ensure workers can return home if they wish to: ensure free access to passports and identity documents, fund travel costs and liaise with host/destination country on travel restrictions and emergency repatriation.
  • Support suppliers: Pay for goods that have already been produced or are in production and provide support to enable suppliers to continue to employ and pay workers.

Government should:

  • Health: Ensure access to testing and health care for all, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
  • Financial support: Provide emergency financial support to all vulnerable workers, including non-citizen workers— extending access to existing benefits or creating new emergency relief funds.
  • Immigration: Automatically extend temporary visas and/or grant amnesty for vulnerable workers.
  • Combat exploitation, human trafficking and forced labour: Uphold labour standards— including both living and working conditions— and take measures to combat increased vulnerability to exploitation and forced labour and protect victims and survivors.
  • Condemn xenophobia: Strongly condemn xenophobic behaviour and discrimination.
  • Protect citizens working abroad: Ensure borders are open to returning citizens; engage with governments in destination countries to facilitate return or ensure protection for those unable to return home; and ensure funds can be remitted during lockdowns.

Serena Grant is Business and Engagement Lead at the Walk Free initiative of the Minderoo Foundation.

This article has been prepared by Serena Grant as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners. 

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