Repression and Resilience: COVID-19 Migrant Workers’ Rights in East and Southeast Asia during COVID-19

Interview with Daniel Awigra, Deputy Director of the Human Rights Working Group, and Mariko Hayashi, Director of the Southeast and East Asian Center

February 5, 2020

Migrant workers have emerged as one of the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this in mind, the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) in Indonesia and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) embarked on an on-the-ground study to assess the conditions facing migrant workers in seven major destinations in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating in the publication of the book Repression and Resilience: COVID-19 Response Measures and Migrant Workers’ Rights in Major East and Southeast Asian Destinations.

SPF spoke with the two leaders of this research project — Daniel Awigra, deputy director of HRWG, and Mariko Hayashi, current director of the Southeast and East Asian Center (SEEAC) and former SPF program officer — about the results of this research as well as their proposals for meaningful, cross-regional coordination between governments and civil society organizations to provide support for migrant worker populations during this and any future health emergencies. The excerpts below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did this collaborative research project come about, and what were the essential themes and questions that your teams felt needed to be addressed, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Daniel Awigra: This research is part of an initiative for cross-regional collaboration for human rights protection, especially for migrant workers, in East Asia and Southeast Asia. The collaboration between my organization, the Human Rights Working Group, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation began in 2018.

In recent years, the demand for migrant workers from Southeast Asia to East Asia is higher than ever before. The interdependence on migrant labor between countries and regions is on the rise. Population aging, increasing women’s economic participation, economic growth, and development are some trends and factors of migration. In this situation, a cross-regional platform for dialogue and cooperation between the two regions has become increasingly important.
At the same time, East and Southeast Asia are not the exception to the global trends of the rising of sectarian populism and nationalism. Migrants are seen as others, often becoming scapegoats and discriminated against. One of the roots of the problems faced by migrant workers and members of their family is the fact that migrant workers have been governed by policies made based on strong national interests in both countries of origin and destination.
However, despite increasing trends of migration between two regions, there’s still an absence of cross-regional cooperation, especially among civil society, non-state actors, who are playing a very significant role in responding to the needs of migrant workers and supporting their work.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are turning their back on the vulnerable migrant workers, and even blaming them for the spread of the disease instead of providing the support they need. The negative impacts of immigration are more often talked about than significant contributions that migrant workers make. At the same time, the pandemic has brought difficulty to our work as part of civil society in voicing our concerns and raising awareness of the plight of marginalized people, and migrant workers have become one of the most vulnerable groups.
We came up with a decision to conduct a cross-regional study in order to better understand the human rights situation of migrant workers in this region. One of the main challenges during the pandemic is that it has been very difficult for civil society actors to visit people who are concerned about their human rights, gather information about their situation, and advocate at the national, regional, and international level.
Benefitting from our network that we have already built across East and Southeast Asia, this research was able to gather very rich data and information, including testimonies of the affected migrant workers themselves. Focusing on major destinations in this region, we’ve conducted a joint research on COVID-19 response measures and their impact on the lives of migrant workers in order to improve the protections of migrant workers cross-regionally.
In December 2020, your teams presented a new book entitled Repression and Resilience: COVID-19 Response Measures and Migrant Workers’ Rights in Major East and Southeast Asian Destinations. Could you first give us a rundown of the research that was conducted for this book and talk about some of the trends or common points that this research picked up across the region?
Mariko Hayashi: Given the emerging situations outlined by Daniel, this study was conducted with three main objectives. The first is to assess the impact of COVID-19 response measures and preexisting migration policies on the rights of migrant workers during the pandemic. The second is to explore how the vulnerabilities of migrant workers translate into their lived experiences, and how state and non-state actors responded to the challenges faced by migrant workers. And last but not least, we also wanted to amplify voices of people who are affected and bring these voices to multi-stakeholders at national and regional level.
This study focused on situations in destinations of migrant workers, so we covered seven destinations including Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. We worked with field researchers in these seven destinations who are working directly with migrant workers either as practitioners providing direct support to these migrant worker communities, or who are community-based researchers. These field researchers gathered data during the period of mainly between July and September 2020, and before the publication was developed.
We tried to fill the gap in the public discourses around the pandemic, which overemphasizes statistics, and we wanted to bring the lived experiences and stories of migrant workers. This was possible because of the trusted relationships our field researchers had already built with migrant workers they work with. Their extended local knowledge also enabled us to include information and data from local sources that are available in their local languages into our analysis.
Some of the common challenges faced by migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic include but are not limited to immobility both locally and internationally, limited or no access to healthcare or PPE, financial difficulties due to job loss, and inability to access or ineligibility for state financial assistance. Exploitation and unfair treatment at workplaces are also common issues, and there has been increased risk of human trafficking, as well as limited or no access to information. This have resulted in the violation of the rights of these migrant workers, most obviously the rights to health during the pandemic, and also labor rights as workers.
The specific vulnerabilities of migrant workers were found in situations where, for example, fear of immigration law enforcement became barriers to many migrant workers, particularly those who were undocumented or with irregular status, in accessing essential care or support. Most migrant workers’ visas are tied to their employers, and many of them live in accommodations provided by their employers, so this meant that those who lost their work faced the risk of losing their visas or homes. This sense of uncertainty coming from these situations as well as financial or emotional distress, immobility, exploitation, or increased surveillance by employers, resulted in the worsening of the mental health conditions of migrant workers.
We concluded that these challenges faced by migrant workers are rooted in the way that they have been treated by society since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Another reason for migrant workers’ vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic was the fact that nationality, citizenship, and migration status have been used as conditions for essential services and support that are available. Migrant workers aren’t able to participate fully in society because of their immigration status and inclusion/exclusion was based on what passport or what visas they have. Even during the pandemic, within this access to support and care, there has been reproduction of border controls during the crisis.
In this situation, local NGOs and self-help groups played significant roles in giving humanitarian assistance, disseminating information in accessible forms, providing culturally sensitive support, or sign posting to more professional service and care.
What are some of the recommendations that came out of this research on the ground?
Mariko Hayashi: As a collective initiative, this joint research proposed a guideline for protecting the rights of migrant workers during a public health crisis such as COVID-19. It begins with a general principle, which includes the recognition of specific vulnerabilities of migrant workers, which I have touched upon, and also community resilience and the importance of meaningful participation. The general principle also calls for non-discriminatory criteria for essential services, as well as the need for clear separation between immigration law enforcement and public health service provisions.
The main part of this guideline talks about the seven specific areas of rights that are significant for migrant workers, including the rights to healthcare, information, decent work, and social protection, a safe and fair immigration process, protection from trafficking, safe living conditions, and rights of migrant workers who are in hard-to-reach workplaces.
The final section of these guidelines also calls for support of the resilience of civil societies, including migrant workers and their supporters, and continuous cooperation among countries of origin and destination. We request power holders such as government, international organizations, donor orgs to work alongside the grassroots movement of migrant workers and supporting communities and distribute more resources to them.
For example, as a recommendation for vaccination programs, which are starting in some countries, based on our guidelines, we’d like to see states not using nationality, citizenship or immigration status as criteria for people to receive vaccines. This is a public health crisis, so without protecting the most vulnerable, the society is not protected as a whole. No one is safe until everybody is safe.
To Daniel, in your note at the beginning of the book you bring up the theory that this global pandemic, as a huge shock that has reverberated around the world and changed life as we know it, can also serve as a critical moment of transformation. In light of the conclusions from this research, how do you think the response to the COVID-19 pandemic may provide an opportunity to reassess and strengthen networks to create a more resilient system to protect migrant workers?
Daniel Awigra: The COVID-19 pandemic really shows us how the universality of things is really important. The virus doesn’t know the nationality and doesn’t have religion, doesn’t have any kind of races. It just attacks everyone. The approach that almost every government now is taking to protect their citizens, their nationals, as the mandate of the constitution. Of course, this isn’t enough, because in your country there is not only our citizens living in your country but there are migrant workers, tourists, those who are undocumented, refugees, asylum seekers, and so on.
This pandemic provides a vehicle to explain how important it is to work on the basis of universality and not working based on particular criteria such as religion, nationality, races, or some other identity. I think it’s a good momentum for us to re-look at almost all policies basically whether they are inclusive for everybody or not. If the policies are not inclusive, then there is something wrong with the policies

There is no fixed template that determines the way that each country or region deals with the pandemic. This time we have seen that there are massive policy experiments in a very short period of time. In this emergency situation, the options are very limited. Do we give up or struggle? Do we want to deal with the pandemic alone using nationalistic isolation, which may only empower the authority, or do we want to face it together, build international cooperation, and empower society? These are the options.
The results of our study suggest that rather than surrender, we should instead build up international cooperation by empowering society as the antithesis of the pandemic, knowing that there is no single country that can deal with this alone. The idea of upholding human rights and democratic principles is needed to protect one of the most vulnerable groups. We believe that we can deal with this situation only with solidarity, cooperation, and inclusive policies.
That’s why it’s really important to take a moment to reassess the system of protections for migrant workers, as well as touching upon the democratic challenges, including inviting the migrant worker into every single decision making process.
What do you see as the critical steps that should be taken in order to support this broader collaboration across the region?
Daniel Awigra: In my region in ASEAN, Southeast Asia, there have been a lot of effort and political commitment jointly responding to the pandemic. Of course, we can criticize, we have to be really critical in the way we see whether the political commitment has been implemented or not, or it is just a political commitment that looks written on the paper. It is something that we need to acknowledge the process in the region of ASEAN. While in East Asia, we observe that the response of East Asian countries, they have richer experience in dealing with public health crisis, and they have some resources.
One platform that maybe can be supported in these areas of cooperation where maybe in the Southeast Asia context we are very strong in regionalism as ASEAN, as some avenue to discuss issues, while in East Asia you have richer resources, than a cross-regional cooperation can be strengthened, for instance under the platforms of ASEAN Plus Three for instance.
The initiative to come up with the ASEAN Regional Center On Public Health Emergencies And Emerging Diseases, it is just recently last year announced during Vietnam’s chairmanship. It was recently supported by the Japanese government. In a way ASEAN has a center on public health emergencies. So I think it’s something we can collaborate cross-regionally.
The other idea or area could be bilateral cooperation and international cooperation such as using the Global Compact for Migration platform that also invites the participation of migrant workers.
Mariko Hayashi: For the context of Japan, I think we would like to see both state and non-state actors more involved in the cross border and cross-regional initiatives in protecting migrant workers’ rights, because migration is a continuous process, starting from the recruitment of migrant workers and pre-departure process in their country of origin, through their life in Japan until repatriation and reintegration into their home.
Challenges faced by migrant workers are rooted in the situations of both countries of origin and destination, and also including some places of transition in some cases. At the same time, from the human rights perspective, it is important to think beyond bilateral cooperation, where the state’s governance of migrant workers is usually based on bilateral MOUs between countries. This is because even if you’re successful in eliminating the exploitation of migrant workers from one specific country, we will continue to see another group of migrant workers being exploited if we don’t work on improvement of the protection of the rights of migrant workers regionally and internationally based on the universalities of human rights.
During this public health crisis, Japan has seen devastating impacts of migrant communities who have been treated by the government as a temporary labor force rather than human beings with a livelihood. Civil society actors who have been filling the gaps of public supports that are not available or accessible for migrant communities are experiencing exhaustion out of this long period of pandemic.
We need to take this momentum for more collective and collaborative advocacy for better protection of migrant workers’ rights, not only in Japan but also together with our neighboring countries, in order to create a more resilient and sustainable environment for all.
There is still limited Japanese actors’ involvement in regional cooperation, especially in the area of protection of migrants’ rights. We need and we want to continue working to build stronger networks and cooperation among civil societies in East and Southeast Asia, utilizing any platforms available, especially including the vital work that the Sasakawa Peace Foundation has been doing in these two regions.

Additional links:
Visit the Better Engagement Between East & Southeast Asia (BEBESEA) website to learn more about this topic.
For more from the Asia Peace Initiatives Department, visit the program page.

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