Migrant workers in the tourism industry: How has COVID-19 affected them and what does the future hold?

Published 24 June 2020 / By Helen Dempster & Cassandra Zimmer

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This article is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility

Tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

Worth 8 trillion USD, and creating 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP), tourism has outpaced global economic growth for nine years running. It accounts for 330 million jobs worldwide (one in ten formal sector roles); for every directly created tourism job, nearly one and a half additional jobs are created.

Yet tourism jobs are often low-paid, low-status, seasonal or temporary, and in remote locations – meaning it is hard to find interested local workers. Hence the industry has looked elsewhere, attracting both internal and international migrants. For example, 16% of tourism workers in the European Union and 20% in the United States are foreign-born. In Australia, the tourism and hospitality industry is one of the largest users of temporary work visas.

How has COVID-19 impacted the tourism industry and its migrant workers

The tourism industry is likely to suffer most from the COVID-19 lockdowns and ensuing economic recession. Tourism arrivals are predicted to decline by anywhere from 58% to 80% in 2020, and cost over 100 million jobs, three quarters of which in G20 countries. As of late April, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) predicted a 2.7 trillion USD loss in revenue directly resulting from the global lockdown. Hotels, airlines, and cruise lines have already been devastated. The European Commission has called for ‘a Marshall Plan for tourism’. It will take months for physical restrictions to be lifted and for potential tourists to have the financial and logistical ability to travel again. Without a vaccine, these restrictions may persist, or only be lifted in part. Experts predict that it could take anywhere from one to five years for the industry to recover.

This downturn has disproportionately affected the industry’s international migrant workers, particularly those conducting low-skilled work in high-income countries (which have, to date, been the hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the virus). Migrant workers are being laid off or furloughed en masse, having their salaries reduced, or being asked to take leave.

This not only affects their livelihoods but also those of their families back home. Remittances are projected to decline by 20%, the sharpest decline in recent history.

Many migrant workers are stuck where they were working with no or little income, unable to access their workplaces and overstaying temporary visas. Those who are on employer-tied visas may have lost their right to stay in the country. Without visa extensions and the loosening of restrictions, many of these people risk losing the protections their industry afforded them.

New, and existing, irregular migrants are often uninsured and may be reluctant to seek medical care out of fear that their status will be revealed to authorities. Most cannot return to their countries of origin because of border closures. If they are able, some governments have expressed fear that returning migrant workers will strain already struggling economies and healthcare systems.

The crisis has exacerbated the poor working conditions that many migrant workers in the tourism industry have long suffered. Issues like working overtime for less than the minimum wage without extra pay, under demanding conditions, without being offered leave, are prevalent.

Many migrant workers are hired through labour recruiters, some of whom promise exaggerated salaries or different job descriptions, and charge illegal recruitment fees and related costs. Addressing these issues is difficult, especially given the power dynamics and the complexity of recruitment chains across borders. Those who work in the tourism industry’s formal sector may be tied to a specific employer, not know how to access redress services, or may be concerned about retaliation such as job termination or deportation. Those in the tourism industry’s informal sector often do not have recourse to redress services through usual channels. Workers in both sectors often lack access to a trade union, and may have had their passports confiscated by employers or recruiters.

While these issues affect many low-income migrant workers across various industries, the nature of work within the tourism industry – existing irregular hours, remote locations, and overwhelming demand, to name just a few – means these issues are particularly pertinent.

Recommendations to support migrant workers, during COVID-19 and beyond

The tourism industry could take several years to fully recover, once the health impacts of COVID-19 have subsided, and travel restrictions are eased. During the short-term, it will be imperative for governments, civil society, and travellers to support businesses operating within the tourism industry and the migrants who staff it. Long-term, it will be important to use this opportunity to rethink the way that the tourism industry operates – both in terms of its environmental sustainability and the conditions under which its key staff works.

Luckily, there are sustainable and effective short- and long-term solutions. COVID-19 provides an opportunity to recognise the role migrant workers play in the tourism industry (and many others) and take steps to ensure future workers can fully contribute. From providing all migrants with access to healthcare and social safety nets, regardless of their immigration status, to a long-term increase in the number of temporary and seasonal visas available to migrant workers, working abroad in the tourism industry should be a safe and productive choice.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated border and business closures have had a devastating impact on the tourism industry. Yet this is also an opportunity to ‘build back better’ to safeguard migrant populations and rebuild such a critical industry to the world economy.

This is a summary of a recently published paper by the Center for Global Development (CGD) - ‘Migrant Workers in the Tourism Industry: How has COVID-19 Affected Them, and What Does the Future Hold?’. For more information and for our detailed policy recommendations, please visit

Helen Dempster is the assistant director and senior associate for policy outreach for the Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy Program at the Center for Global Development. Prior to joining CGD, she worked for five years in research communications at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the International Growth Centre (IGC). Twitter: @helen_dempster

Cassandra Zimmer is a program coordinator for the Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy program at CGD. She graduated from American University with a BA in International Studies in 2018. Prior to joining CGD, Zimmer worked as a research fellow for Stanford University’s American Voices Project.