This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
With growing xenophobia and stigmatization of migrants and refugees as presumed carriers of coronavirus, what might the future hold for low-skilled migrants?
Comparative research across 26 countries by the International Migration Policy and Law Analysis (IMPALA) consortium suggests a number of trends in migrant regulation since the 1990s. Their research identifies, broadly across all observed countries, a set of growing restrictions or ‘stringency’ around low-skilled migrants along with a lessening of restrictions or stringency around highly skilled migrants. The United States appears as both the most restrictive in its treatment of low-skilled workers and the least restrictive concerning highly skilled migrants. Indeed, the post-Brexit UK government is seeking to stop most low-skilled worker migration completely (worryingly, at a time when the country is relying on such workers most).
Currently during the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries such as the USA and Germany have taken steps to relax some restrictions on low-skilled migrants, especially agricultural workers. After the pandemic subsides, however, we might well expect several policies to get even more restricted. In order to move out of a massive global recession, economic sectors employing low-skilled workers will certainly need and get them: yet much public opinion, likely still swayed by the upsurge of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the pandemic, will need reassurance that low-skilled migrants are supplying labour but are otherwise secluded and controlled. Like the various scenarios that economists suggest might emerge in the global economy, the future of global migration can be approached through various scenarios.
One such scenario in many places, I suggest, might be a proliferation of ‘Singapore futures’ for low-skilled migrants.
Although in a way vying with Dubai and other Arab states, Singapore already has one of the strictest regimes for low-skilled migrants worldwide. It is a city-nation-state entirely dependent on migrants. In 2019, out of Singapore’s total population of 5.7 million, some 1.4 million (24.5%) were foreign workers. Of those, no less than 981,000 were present under the Work Permit scheme for low- or semi-skilled workers. This differs from Singapore’s far less restrictive ‘Employment pass’ scheme for professionals and mid-skilled workers. Migrant men, largely from India, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, make up a dominant part of the low- and semi-skilled workforce in construction, shipyards and factories. Migrant women, predominantly from the Philippines, comprise the majority of the domestic workforce, for which 255,800 Foreign Domestic Work permits were issued in 2019. As Jaclyn Neo observes, “Singapore’s work permit regime envisages the workers to be transient. Their recruitment, mobility, and working conditions are heavily regulated to ensure this transiency.”
The conditions under which these migrants in Singapore work are notably constraining:
Restricting most low-skilled workers to dormitories not only inhibits interaction with locals, but also allows authorities to separate, segregate, contain and control the migrants and their mobility. In 2012, policymakers even discussed housing migrant workers on nearby offshore islands instead of on the main island of Singapore. And in cases of disease outbreak, the workers can be sealed off from the rest of the population. Indeed, currently 20,000 low-skilled migrant workers have been quarantined in dormitories in Singapore. Human rights advocates have voiced their concerns that such restrictions could be a recipe for a health disaster, especially since worker dormitories often house 12-20 men per room. Meanwhile, female domestic workers must remain with their employers on their days off.
Post-COVID-19, in many countries, the global trends already underway toward further restricting low-skilled migrant workers might move increasingly toward the Singaporean model, especially in terms of ‘ensured transiency’, physically controlled containment, limitations on interaction with locals, and if need be, modalities for simple and quick expulsion. These kinds of requirements serve to restrict migrants’ physical and economic mobility and autonomy, while exposing them to potential exploitation (especially for migrants who may have incurred debt in order to travel and/or obtain a job abroad). Such measures, however, might be increasingly attractive to policymakers, as they ensure clear and quick economic benefits at low cost to employers while the public can be assured that the (increasingly, post-COVID-19, stigmatized?) low-skilled migrants are safely separated from the national population, controlled and confined.
After COVID-19, many people around the world will be looking desperately for rapid economic recuperation and might wish a ‘Singapore future’ for their own nation-state in terms of emulating a well-ordered and prosperous society. For low-skilled migrants, a ‘Singapore future’ would not be so desirable.
Steven Vertovec is Director of Max-Planck-Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity; he is also the founding director of COMPAS.