Skip to main content

25 February 2022

Essential but disposable: the gendered impact of Covid on migrant domestic workers

Sarah Gammage and Smriti Rao

International migrant workers have long been “essential but disposable”. Despite being severely impacted by the pandemic, they've been consistently overlooked.

Migrant domestic workers News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

Read the essays

Sarah Gammage is the Director of Public Policy/Government Relations, Latin America at The Nature Conservancy.

Smriti Rao is the Department Chair for Economics, Finance and International Business and Professor of Economics at Assumption University.

During the pandemic, the bulk of public attention and policy intervention has focused on domestic efforts to address Covid and ensure access to vaccination. But restrictions on human mobility during the crisis have also had a direct impact on the vast flows of migration that the global economy is built on. International migrant workers have long been “essential but disposable” – and throughout this time they’ve been among the most forgotten groups, despite being among the most severely affected.

Migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are particularly vulnerable to lockdowns and curfews, border closures, and travel bans. Across the world, domestic work is more likely than other industries to be made up of a high share of women and migrants. Close to 95 per cent of all domestic workers globally are women and one in five are migrants, with that share rising far higher in many individual countries.

The impact of the pandemic on migrant domestic workers

Throughout Covid, migrants have been caught between different degrees of lockdown in home and host countries. Many migrants were summarily abandoned and confined to overcrowded detention centres, or left in a legal limbo as host countries were unable or unwilling to fly them home or take them back. It has been reported that 22,900 people were repatriated from the UAE by late April 2020, many without receiving wages for work already performed.

In our research, MDWs shared that neighbourhoods densely populated by migrants were disproportionately deprived of services and faced more severe lockdowns. Once confined to these neighbourhoods, migrant communities had more limited access to food, healthcare and other services than non-migrant neighbourhoods. This was particularly true in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and in parts of Spain and Italy.

Globally, many MDWs travel on sponsored visas linked to specific employers in host countries. These sponsorship visas mandate an exclusive relationship where the migrant either lives with the employer or works exclusively for them. Ostensibly, this link provides security for both the worker and employer. However, it also limits worker freedoms if the terms and conditions of employment are not favourable to the worker. During the pandemic, this link has caused a particular vulnerability. With a visa linked to one employer, migrants are in legal limbo – largely unprotected by emergency pandemic response measures, unable to look for new work, unable to qualify for protections like unemployment insurance, and unable to leave the country due to travel restrictions.

This reality underscores the intimate connection between labour and migration policies. Where countries did not extend visas and work permits to migrants, social distancing measures left many MDWs without jobs and without legal status in their host countries. Some were expelled from their employers’ houses, and some have even been detained in government facilities. Among live-in workers, where employment loss due to Covid restrictions did not lead to loss of shelter, MDWs reported a higher risk of being trapped in abusive employment relationships without wages or sufficient compensation. We found evidence of this in reports from Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and Italy.

A few host countries provided amnesty to undocumented migrant workers (Kuwait) or regularised their status (Italy) as public health safety measures. Others automatically extended visas to those who had a tourist or work visa (Costa Rica) or allowed workers to apply for extensions without having to return home (the US). In some cases, these provisions came about after a home country negotiated with a host country on behalf of migrants, such as in Bangladesh. In most cases, however, migrant domestic workers were left to fend for themselves in increasingly hostile environments to foreigners, such as in the US, where deportations dramatically increased in March 2020, or in Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Kuwait, and Jordan, where all non-native migrants were told that if they returned home, they would not be allowed back into the country.

The pandemic also brought to the fore the difficulties in enforcing workplace regulation for private households. Workers who are able to apply to get the benefits they are eligible for are the minority that have internet access, awareness, and access to the necessary documentation. Even where there are some protections, as in Costa Rica, employers may force workers to renounce their claims to additional benefits in exchange for corroborating unemployment. Workers are largely at the whim of their employers, who may continue to pay them while they shelter-in-place or may not. Medical costs are often the responsibility of the employer, but the sponsorship system means workers are at the mercy of employers. In the US, domestic workers are more likely than other workers to have been born outside of the US and they typically lack social protection, vacation, and healthcare benefits.

The pandemic did see an expansion of social protection globally. While few of the measures were targeted at migrant workers and migrant domestic workers in particular, several countries with more developed social protection systems provided additional support to households regardless of residency status, as well as financial transfers for caring for children and the elderly. Germany, Spain and Costa Rica provided childcare subsidies in recognition of the need to care for children. South Africa, Namibia and Cape Verde extended their social protection systems to include migrants and migrant domestic workers. Other countries expanded child-related financial transfers, such as the US and Germany. These measures may have enabled host countries to ensure that MDWs retain their jobs and helped women stay in employment, thus reducing their retreat from the labour force.

In the face of inadequate social protection systems, and Covid-19 responses that don’t take migrants and undocumented workers into account, many migrant rights organisations are beginning to make claims on home and host country governments. The Alliance Against Violence and Harassment in Jordan, a partner with the Solidarity Centre, is demanding that the government grant migrant workers legal residency during Covid-19, as many visas and work permits will expire during lockdown. The Alliance is calling for the government to grant financial assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin.

The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), a global federation of domestic worker unions, has begun to send money to affiliates in different countries and has redefined some of their work as humanitarian in response to desperate calls for support. The IDWF now has a solidarity fund to provide support to migrant domestic workers.

Migrant organising also became virtual in the lockdowns. The Domestic Workers Solidarity Network in Jordan shared information about Covid and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page. Venezuelan immigrants in Costa Rica organised virtual migration and asylum workshops with immigration lawyers, NGOs and United Nations organisations. There are SMS campaigns in Qatar to ensure that MDWs and their employers have access to information about rights and protections.

Covid-19 has brought to the fore the critical role of care work undertaken by migrant domestic workers, who are at the same time both essential and excluded – essential to society yet excluded from many of the rights and protections afforded native workers. This crisis has thrown this exclusion and discrimination into sharp relief.

Stringent Covid policies implemented without sufficient social protections left many migrants, and particularly MDWs, without employment and livelihoods. Few home countries attempted to bring MDWs home, and where they did, MDWs were left to pay for transportation. Yet claims-making occurred, even under these conditions.

Our own research concluded that countries with more robust social protection systems and more inclusive migration regimes, such as Canada, Costa Rica, and Germany, responded better and more efficiently to the needs of MDWs. It is essential that we learn from the experiences of these countries, as understanding what is happening to migrant care workers can help us rebuild stronger, in a way that leaves no one behind.