Media Release30 Apr 2020

COVID-19 fight undercut by measures exposing vulnerable workers

Walk Free has today released a report which highlights how the exclusion of migrant and other vulnerable workers from access to testing, healthcare and financial support is threatening human rights and increasing the risk of COVID-19 spreading to the entire population.

Colombia - Valenzuela - Health Virus Migration
A Venezuelan migrant embraces her relatives before they board a bus to voluntarily return to Venezuela because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in Cali, Colombia. Photo Credit: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images.

Walk Free’s business engagement lead Serena Grant said unless governments and businesses provide support to vulnerable workers, they will expose the entire population to increased risk of contracting the virus.

“Singapore was initially congratulated on its successful containment of the virus and appeared to have things under control. However, last week the country confirmed 3,000 new cases in just three days with eighty per cent reportedly linked to migrant worker dormitories.” Ms Grant said.

“This demonstrates it is crucial to ensure vulnerable workers are included in COVID-19 prevention and support measures, if we want to contain the virus successfully.”

“COVID-19 does not discriminate between citizens and migrant workers or formal and informal workforces. And yet many of the support measures being introduced by governments and businesses do,” Ms Grant said.

“Beyond the health risks, the economic impacts of the crisis will not only threaten livelihoods, but in some cases, lives. While these groups are always vulnerable to financial shocks, the widespread job losses, lockdowns and travel bans make it impossible to find alternative means to support themselves and their families during the crisis. This will make millions of people extremely vulnerable to exploitation, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery.

“This crisis is unfortunately providing a stark illustration of what happens when we fail to safeguard the human rights of vulnerable people and exclude them from the social safety net provided to others.”

Walk Free’s researchers have compiled case studies from around the world which demonstrate how migrant, undocumented and informal workers face increased risk of exploitation, stranded without means to support themselves, living in conditions that increase the risk of infection, and with limited or non-existent access to healthcare or sick leave.

“If a worker doesn’t access COVID-19 testing because of a lack of information or fears of deportation, the risk of spreading the virus increases,” Ms Grant said.

“If a worker doesn’t isolate when ill because they cannot afford the time without pay, the risk increases again.”

In addition to highlighting the risks, the report shines a light on practices that are working to support the vulnerable and outlines practical steps businesses and governments can take in their response to better support vulnerable workers.

“Some countries have responded with universal healthcare for migrants and asylum seekers and free COVID-19 testing without fear of deportation. Others have launched emergency relief funds specifically for undocumented or informal workers. We should learn from these countries and adapt support mechanisms to ensure the most vulnerable in our society can survive this crisis,” Ms Grant said.

“Vulnerable workers should be supported through this global crisis; not only because it will decrease the health risk to the broader population, but because governments and businesses have human rights obligations to do so.

“Walk Free is calling on business and government leaders to act urgently and collaboratively to address risks to vulnerable workers and protect lives. Whether that is migrant workers stranded without means to support themselves, or crews on vessels prevented from accessing basic supplies in port – we must put human rights and human lives first.”

Walk Free is a part of the Minderoo Foundation and produces the Global Slavery Index, the world’s most comprehensive study on the prevalence of slavery.

The full report, entitled ‘Protecting people in a pandemic: urgent collaboration needed to protect vulnerable workers and prevent exploitation’ can be downloaded here.