Protecting the precarious: COVID-19 and migrant workers

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Laavanya Kathiravelu, assistant professor at NTU, has been researching the lives of low-wage migrant workers for more than a decade and sits on the board of HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics). Here she examines how migrants’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been adequately addressed.

Across the world, the coronavirus outbreak has made existing socio-economic and political divides starker. Singapore, despite its comparably admirable handling of this pandemic, is no exception. We see this most obviously in the case of low-wage migrant workers who make up the biggest component of mobile transnationals in Singapore. With about a million work permit holders in Singapore, including almost 250,000 domestic workers, at 17 percent of the total population, they are the largest non-citizen group living within our borders—often within our own homes. Yet their specific needs in relation to the coronavirus pandemic have not been adequately addressed. As we have seen in recent days, this makes the nation as a whole more vulnerable to the virus,  exposing more broadly how unequal treatment of one group can affect the rest of the country. 

The recently highlighted problems affecting low-wage migrants all existed prior to the spread of COVID-19;[1] the pandemic brings them into sharper relief. For example, the difficulties of living in tight, crowded spaces in dormitories have been exacerbated. Existing problems of hygiene indicated by bedbugs and rat infestations have become important public health concerns. The discourse of containment, used to justify the seclusion of migrants in dormitories (often at the edges of the island), now enables greater restrictions on their movement, with thousands effectively locked into their rooms for weeks.

Migrant workers in a dormitory room in 2012. The conditions of dormitories has been a long-standing issue of concern for workers and the NGOs that assist them. (Photo: Rob O’Brien)

These measures may be seen as justified given current circumstances, sacrificing a group to ensure the well-being of many others. After all, this strategy was seen as largely successful in China, with the lockdown of Wuhan. This is yet another sacrifice we demand these migrants take, for the sake of a nation which restricts their rights to live with family or form any permanent legal affiliation to the country in which they labour. Low-wage migrant men in Singapore already face discrimination. Often assumed to be sexual threats, dirty and dangerous; the fears around the coronavirus will exacerbate their social exclusion. 

Domestic workers’ mobilities have also been further restricted. While we are quarantining in our homes, with our families, migrant domestics are far away from support networks, which they now cannot access even on their days off. They have to take on additional labour, caregiving for children who are not at school while parents continue to fulfill work commitments, and cooking more meals for those sheltering at home. This also increases possibilities of overwork—a top complaint according to local NGOs. Letting employers decide whether they can leave the home exposes the extreme lack of liberty current terms of employment entail. 

The precarity of low-wage migrants is key to understanding their inability to weather this crisis as effectively as the rest of the population. One significant way in which we can ensure they are better able to deal with such pandemics is to de-couple migrants’ welfare and visa status from their employers. Placing responsibility for migrants on employers doesn’t just give them an extraordinary level of control over migrants’ bodies, but it also places undue strain and expectations in times of crisis. The events of the last few days and months have made clear that employers are not the best placed to ensure that the migrant workers whom they employ are aware of and prepared for a crisis. Many were not informed of increased social distancing measures, nor were they given the resources such as masks, sanitisers or increased living and working space to deal with changes that the rest of the country was undertaking. NGOs have had to step in where employers and government agencies have not adequately disseminated information about the virus or educated migrants on how to best protect themselves against infection. There are doubts if all employers will pass on aid from the state to their affected workers, or if they will go without pay.

NGOs have been an important source of information for domestic workers, who may not be adequately informed by employers or the government about the COVID-19 situation—or relevant labour rights they have. (Photo: Justice Without Borders)

Many states are prioritizing the health and wellbeing of their citizens. Others, such as Portugal, have extended full citizenship rights to migrants and asylum seekers. Our Prime Minister has argued against the abandonment of globalization that some may see as an inevitable outcome of this crisis. Part of this means recognizing the significance of non-citizen migrants within our country. Our chain of biological defense is only as strong as its weakest link. We should prioritise migrant welfare and rights now, not just for these more selfish reasons, but also because we are an interconnected global community. Guaranteeing rights and welfare of low-waged migrants should not then be left to the discretion of individual employers but should be ensured collectively by the state working together with migrant advocacy agencies and a concerned public.

Social scientists have shown convincingly[2] that structural change often happens in times of great socio-political and economic upheaval. Goodwill efforts are welcome and necessary at times of crisis like this, where banding together demonstrates solidarity and gives much needed immediate help. However, as others have also suggested, we should take this opportunity to ensure that policy change takes place to ensure better living and employment conditions for low-wage migrants, even after this crisis. In addition to improving standards in worker dormitories, more direct channels of communication need to be established by the state to reach marginalised low-waged migrant communities. Migrant rights—whether in relation to wage payments or days off—need to be addressed within the larger realm of labour rights, as these individuals are as crucial as other workers in our economy. This will not be the last biological threat that we face as a nation. How we respond now will define future responses. We must use this current imperative for change to demand more lasting structural amendments that recognize our migrant workers are an integral part of building resilience as a nation.


[1] S. Chok, Labour Justice and Low-Paid Migrant Workers in Singapore: Ethics, Faith and Social Justice (Ethos Institute for Public Christianity, 2017); L. Kathiravelu, “Bodies that don’t matter, but labour that does: The low wage male migrant in Singapore and Dubai” in Natalie Boero and Kate Mason (eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of the Body and Embodiment (Oxford University Press, 2020); L. Kathiravelu (co-authored with George Wong), “Marginalised Migrants and Urbanisation in Southeast Asia” in Rita Padawangi (ed.), Handbook of Urbanisation in Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2018); L. Kathiravelu, “Whose Justice and for whom? Low wage migrants, authoritarian regimes and nations of what is fair” in Sandra Brunnegger (ed.), Everyday Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

[2] A. Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies”, American Sociological Review, 51(2): 273-286 (1986)

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