EL PAIS

Quebec To Cairo, The Pandemic's Heavy Toll On Migrant Workers

The COVID-19 crisis has been particularly disruptive for people who earn a living by moving from one place to the next. But companies who depend on those workers also struggle.

Migrant worker in India
Migrant worker in India

In El Rocio, Spain, workers wearing disposable face masks pile onto overcrowded buses each morning to pick raspberries in plastic greenhouses, where temperatures can reach up to 40 °C. From there, they return to shared temporary housing in the village, where roughly 50 workers are split between 10 rooms.

The living and working conditions are less than ideal for stopping the spread of the coronavirus in a country that was strongly hit by the virus and where cases continue to rise. Still, for migrant workers like 19-year-old Emeka of Nigeria and his housemates, ages ranging from 19-21, the pandemic has provided a rare opportunity.

Just months ago, Emeka had no job, let alone a work permit, but after a labor shortage caused by the pandemic, the Spanish government granted migrant workers temporary visas. With a smile, he tells Spanish daily El Pais, "This is the first time I've had the opportunity to earn a declared salary."

Essential skills

While Emeka's story has a positive outcome — at least for now — it also highlights a jarring juxtaposition between the crucial role migrants play in keeping food supplies and economies running smoothly, particularly in times of crisis, and the heightened xenophobia and restrictions they face as a result of the pandemic.

An asparagus farm in Quebec, Canada offers a particularly stark example, as Le Journal De Québec reporter Maude Ouellet discovered last month in the province's Lanaudière region. Due to border closures and travel restrictions, the pandemic cut off many temporary migrant workers who enter the country, seasonally or annually. The result is an acute labor shortage, and for places like the Primera farm, where Ouellet spent three days, there are real costs to bear.

The government responded to the labor shortage by calling on the people of Quebec to carry out certain essential jobs, especially in agriculture. More than 8,000 Canadians volunteered, the article explains. But as Marcel Groleau, head of the agricultural producers union (UPA), argues, they lack the skills of the more experienced migrants. For Primera, in particular, this loss of trained hands resulted in half the amount of asparagus crops picked this season and an estimated loss of nearly $150,000.

Migrant workers protesting for documents and regulation in Spain — Photo: Matthias Oesterle/ZUMA

Lost in the fray

On the other side of the world, in India, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on internal migrant workers, an already marginalized population that has been swept even further under the rug, PhD candidate Aman Abhishek argues in a recent piece for the Indian daily The Wire.

Over the past several months, he explains, public discourse in India has been focused primarily on the spread of the virus and on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's public displays meant to evoke collective sympathy and mourning, such as showering hospitals with flower petals from army helicopters.

In the meantime, however, thousands of migrant workers found themselves stranded by the nationwide lockdown, writes Abhishek, a media studies student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States. Many attempted to cross thousands of kilometers by any means they could find, including by foot, while others died of hunger.

The country is now reopening after its impromptu lockdown. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, however, and many migrants still find themselves in the same situation they were in before and during the lockdown: stranded somewhere along their journey home to another part of the country, and with an even higher chance of catching and spreading the virus.

A raw deal

Elsewhere, workers have been stranded between countries. Such is the case for a large number of Egyptians, including many with high skill levels, who work in the oil-rich Gulf states but are now bearing the brunt of a sudden economic downturn.

The Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr reports that with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Gulf countries took precautionary measures to control the pandemic. That, in turn, put economic pressure on companies, and those companies "offloaded it onto expatriates' by forcing them to accept new, watered down contracts with reduced salaries and benefits. Others have lost their jobs completely and are seeking to return to Egypt, which isn't in a position economically to absorb them, the news site explains.

Everywhere, migrant workers are among the first to suffer the economic consequences of the crisis. Nowhere, however, do they exist in a bubble. Ultimately, their struggles impact others down the line. Such laborers may be at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, but for that very reason they also make up a foundation on which everyone else depends.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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