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.
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."
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.