Pandemic Exposes Precarity of Workers Worldwide
“This reflects the deliberate invisibilization of the foreign worker; the whole machinery of state operates as though they don’t exist.”
With COVID-19 taking a grip on countries all over the world, people are being told to stay home as much as possible, often under threat of fine. But some jobs cannot be done from home, and those being sent out to work are more exposed due to a lack of labor rights for many migrants.
From Singapore to Europe and the United States to India, migrant workers have been disproportionately impacted by the lethal coronavirus.
In America, multiple meat processing plants have been outbreak centers including the third biggest hotspot in the country in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Other plants in Minnesota, Colorado, and Iowa also have been hit by hundreds of cases.
Taneeza Islam, the founder of an immigrant advocacy group, told NPR about the South Dakota outbreak, “we understand from firsthand employee accounts that they were not provided any protective gear. They were not given any hand sanitizer.”
The closure of the plant by Smithfield precipitated concerns that the US would soon face a meat shortage.
The coronavirus crisis has placed a magnifying glass on the general mistreatment of workers across the globe in thankless jobs. When the world is asked to socially distance, some are being told to head back to work without the proper protection.
Further than just working conditions, the living conditions of many migrant workers across the globe have caused major outbreaks.
Singapore was one of the first countries with a coronavirus case, and they received early plaudits for the quick response to squash the threat of the new virus. But the country has become the leading example of a second wave of the virus.
Most of Singapore’s coronavirus resurgence has been in migrant hotels that house the small city-state’s thousands of low-paid migrant workers. In recent days, Singapore has had spikes of thousands of cases per day.
“This reflects the deliberate invisibilization of the foreign worker; the whole machinery of state operates as though they don’t exist,” Alex Au, vice president of rights group Transient Workers Count Too told The Washington Post.
Examples of this invisibility and the precarity of migrant workers can be found in both developing and developed economies.
In Qatar, Nepalese migrant workers were illegally deported and sent back without pay. Guatemala said migrants deported from the United States were found to have coronavirus with nearly a whole plane of 73 infected. In India’s nationwide lockdown, domestic migrant workers have been trapped in metropolises, and the state has provided insufficient relief to the neediest citizens.
Deciding Who is Human
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare many societal problems and it begs the question of what lives are prioritized over others.
With correctional facilities and meat processing plants at the top coronavirus hotspots in America, we are getting an insight as to which lives are valued.
Globally, low-skilled labor, while essential, has not received much priority in terms of safety. The United Kingdom has flown in Eastern European migrant workers to pick the country’s food, but it has already failed to protect many healthcare workers on the front line, with minorities and immigrants falling victim more than their white, British coworkers.
As countries scramble to shore up food production and ensure the economy ticks over, workers with fewer rights will be at their most likely to be exploited.
In the United States, immigrant farmworkers have been deemed essential, but President Trump’s actions and words have shown he views them as expendable.
“Agricultural employers arrange transportation from Mexico and other countries for agricultural guest workers, who usually travel on crowded buses, are placed in crowded housing, work in groups in the field, lack health insurance, and are dependent on that one employer to be able to work and to remain in the United States,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice in a statement.
In countries where migrants lack proper healthcare and work necessitates them working in close quarters, the deadly coronavirus will continue to spread and claim the lives of many of the most essential workers.