Singapore announced today, 6 April 2020, that nearly 20,000 migrant workers have been put under quarantine for two weeks after a growing number of coronavirus infections were detected in their dormitories. The ongoing pandemic has worsened the situation for migrant workers across the world as conditions in labour camps – notoriously known for being cramped and lacking basic hygiene and sanitary services – make it impossible for workers to protect themselves against the virus.
The dire conditions of migrant workers
In a new report from the European Committee of Social Rights, the respect of the rights of migrant workers was found to be problematic, with all but three countries examined not conforming with provisions of Article 19 (rights of migrant workers and their families to protection and assistance), especially regarding infringements on the right to family reunion.
“The COVID-19 crisis is a brutal reminder of the importance of ensuring lasting progress with respect to social rights enjoyment, particularly through the development of universal public health services,” stressed Giuseppe Palmisano, President of the European Committee of Social Rights.
The Committee noted that in many cases the expulsion of a migrant worker could entail the expulsion of family members, without assessing their own personal circumstances, which may disproportionately negatively impact women and girls. It also said it was increasingly concerned about the treatment of children in an irregular migrant situation and expressed concerns about their detention, age assessments and bone testing, and what measures have been taken to reduce statelessness.
How are countries responding?
On 6 April 2020, Singapore told 20,000 migrant workers to stay in their dormitories for 14 days as coronavirus cases increase in the city state. Two dormitories have been isolated: one with 13,000 workers and 63 cases, and one with 6,800 workers and 28 cases. The workers will be paid and given three meals a day – but some have complained of overcrowded and dirty conditions.
Six workers in the Punggol dormitory told the Straits Times their centre already had cockroaches, overflowing toilets, and queues for food.
In a welcome decision last week, hundreds of Nepalis who work in India and were crowded at the border trying to go back home will now be supported by Indian authorities as Nepali authorities have made little provision for returning citizens.
“We’ve been sleeping in the roads,” 41-year-old Dilendra Singh Mahata told Human Rights Watch. “It’s cold at night. We’re really hungry. If that disease doesn’t kill us, this will. We’re willing to quarantine, but we want to come home.”
Malaysia’s border shutdown also led to an exodus of Malaysians crossing the border into Singapore for fear of not being able to work. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, some Malaysian migrant workers were found sleeping rough in the streets of Singapore, while many others scrambled to find temporary lodging with friends or on the private market.
Other migrant workers scattered across the Gulf states and elsewhere are also in desperate circumstances. In early March reports emerged of a sudden jump in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 among migrant construction workers quarantined in a labour camp in Qatar.
The Qatari government responded by locking down camps 1 to 32, which are the names of the camps locked down. FIFA has been asked to outline the steps they are taking to protect workers by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. They have also approached a further 14 companies operating across the UAE and Qatar.
The Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties has also called for urgent action to protect migrants working in the Gulf countries and especially in the United Arab Emirates.
The organisation urged the WHO to encourage the UAE to protect the health and safety workers who are forced to continue to work on Expo 2020 Dubai and other projects while the rest of the country heads into lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus.
Outbreaks in labour camps are not a surprise. Migrant workers to Gulf countries, largely from the global south (including Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Kenya), live in tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water.
In India, in an effort to control the virus, the Home Affairs Ministry ordered States to intercept and quarantine the migrants for two weeks but reports and images emerged of police officers apparently beating people – including migrants – with batons, for breaking quarantine rules and allegedly spraying some on the road, with disinfectant.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement that she was distressed by the plight of the informal migrant workers affected, many of whom were, in effect, forced to leave the cities where they worked at just a few hours’ notice, unable to pay for rent or food.
“The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” said Ms. Bachelet. She also noted the importance of ensuring that measures responding to COVID-19 are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.”
In Canada, the federal and provincial governments are facing a “potential disaster” if more protections are not extended to migrant agricultural workers, advocates have said. The warning comes days after 14 migrant workers at a Kelowna nursery tested positive for Covid-19.
“The government needs to ensure they are receiving solid information, that their rights are enforced, that they are receiving income during self-isolation and there are solid logistics in place to self-quarantine,” Anelyse Weiler, a University of Toronto PhD candidate whose research focuses on migrant agricultural workers, said.
“If not, we’re looking at a potential disaster.”
In the US, migrant farmworkers are still working while the US scrambles to flatten the Covid-19 curve. The Trump administration has declared food and agricultural workers as one of the “essential” groups of workers who are advised to continue working but are left unprotected.
The Maldives have reported two cases of Covid-19 among their migrant workers. There are about 100,000 migrant workers in the Maldives, mostly from Bangladesh, making up roughly 25 per cent of the islands’ total population. This population is vulnerable to seeing a much larger number of cases because they live in congested shared quarters and do work that does not make it possible to practice strict social distancing.
In Greece, a second migrant facility in Greece has entered quarantine after an asylum seeker there tested positive for coronavirus. It comes three days after a similar refugee camp, where 23 asylum seekers were found to be infected, was put under quarantine.
Last year, IOHR spoke to Pete Pattisson, a Guardian journalist and filmmaker, about the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf states.