The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the challenges facing migrant workers in Australia, China, and the United Kingdom, say researchers.
“In each of the three countries, COVID has worsened existing inequalities between migrants and workers born there,” says principal investigator Chris Forde, Professor of employment studies at the University of Leeds.
“COVID-19 has put into sharp relief some of the things we assume are basic rights of being a resident or member of a particular society,” says Forde, who cites access to healthcare and unemployment benefits as rights that are increasingly linked to citizenship of a country or region. The research essentially asks: To what is everyone in a society entitled? And does that change in a crisis?
The findings are both “depressing and fascinating,” according to Forde.
The team reviewed past studies, interviewed migrants and employers, and evaluated journalistic accounts of migration. Their project, “COVID-19 and Migration Systems in Transition” was a recipient of a special WUN grant initiative in 2020 addressing research needs triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team will share its findings at the Work, Employment and Society Conference in late August. They are also putting together an online workshop, where they hope to reach policy makers, think tanks, migrant advisory groups, and migrant workers themselves.
The team will report that the countries have maintained their prior trajectories around border control and migration during the pandemic.
In the UK, they observed a tension between rhetoric and action. As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union, Forde and others predicted a labour shortage, something typically remedied with migrant workers. Now, the team finds, employers also foresee gaps resulting from the new post-Brexit points-based immigration system. As people laud “essential workers” with rounds of applause, this new system has made it more difficult for many of these essential workers—migrants from EU countries working in healthcare and other areas—to gain the right to reside and work in the UK.
“It has also been very difficult for pre-Brexit migrants already in the UK to access support to fill out applications for settlement status” adds Forde, who calls this a “ticking time bomb.” Already, he says, many migrants have decided that their futures lie elsewhere—despite their “essential” roles.
The team observed a similar dynamic in Australia, where Forde describes a “heavy move toward nationalism and restriction during COVID–temporary migration schemes shut down, a rhetoric of ‘jobs first for Australians’, and migrants who are not able to support themselves being advised by the Prime Minister to leave.”
Meanwhile, Australian employers lamented a shortage of workers in their interviews with the researchers. “The perception is that there’s been a rapid shift in Australia toward protectionist policies,” says Forde.
The team took a different approach in their consideration of China. Migration into the country from outside is less common, whereas some 300 million people go from rural areas or smaller cities to major urban areas each year. That’s multiple times more than the population of the UK and Australia combined, says Forde. In Wuhan and Shanghai, despite some actions by the government, the researchers again documented some disparities in access to basic protections, including education for migrants’ children.
“For me,” says Forde, the project “has really put into highlight the contributions that migrant workers make beyond their economic value—their social contributions—and yet we’re still having this discussion about their entitlement to what should be seen as basic rights.”
The team aims to continue their investigation, as hopes also to look in the future at the migrant experience of gig/platform work.
The WUN partner universities for “COVID-19 and Migration Systems in Transition” are Renmin University of China and the University of Leeds. The University of Western Australia is involved as a WUN+ partner.