Migrants in the pandemic: Crucial but disposable?

Hundreds of migrants are on the frontline: sanitising hospitals, nursing, collecting rubbish, delivering food and driving buses and taxis. Their underpaid work is more indispensable than ever. But others toiling in sectors like tourism were the first to feel the crunch. How are our migrant communities faring in the times of COVID-19? JAMES DEBONO asks

Malta’s reserve army of labour which contributed to its breathtaking levels of economic growth, particularly in sectors like tourism, has been on the receiving end of layoffs, in the knowledge that when and if the good times come back, new workers can easily be imported to replace the current workforce
Malta’s reserve army of labour which contributed to its breathtaking levels of economic growth, particularly in sectors like tourism, has been on the receiving end of layoffs, in the knowledge that when and if the good times come back, new workers can easily be imported to replace the current workforce

Kamal (name changed) hails from India. He works in hospital delivering medical equipment to wards. He is more concerned about his family back home than the daily risks he faces, noting that others in hospitals like doctors, nurses and cleaners are even more exposed than him.

“My first thoughts are about my family in India, it will be a much greater disaster if COVID-19 strikes there, especially in the poorer areas… many could die and I am very worried.”

He is happy that his work here is now appreciated more than ever. “I notice it in the way people look at me, that nod of appreciation when I tell them where I work,” and he also found a greater sense of camaraderie at the workplace.

“Here we have people from so many different nationalities… Filipinos, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Bulgarians, Eritreans… we are like the tower of Babel… but we still manage to work like clockwork as one team united by one cause.”

Sadly, he does not expect to see a pay rise from his contractors.

“We can be so easily replaced… there is a whole continent from which they can recruit people from… our work is needed more than ever and for us it is always better here than back home.”

But while Kamal’s job is safe, others working in other sectors of the economy are feeling the crunch. The most exposed have been those working in the hospitality industry and those working in the black economy.

The first to be dumped?

Malta’s reserve army of labour which contributed to its breathtaking levels of economic growth, particularly in sectors like tourism, has been on the receiving end of layoffs, in the knowledge that when and if the good times come back, new workers can easily be imported to replace the current workforce.

“Many third country nationals (TCNs) have been ‘let go’ just before the actual bomb dropped, and of course those people are now not eligible for anything. That is going to be a good problem. If you have a work permit and are no longer working you could be deported,” says activist Patricia Graham who leads the ‘Up in Arms’ lobby group in Malta and is in constant contact with TNCs and their communities.

Finding an alternative job is also very unlikely in current circumstances.

“If you are here with a work permit and have been laid off you can’t just get another job without copious red tape and bureaucracy… and right now employers are not interested in doing that. My idea that employers should have kept their workers and then fostered them out just didn’t catch on, unfortunately.”

TCNs who were paid cash in hand will also receive no help, and Graham refers to cases of workers who are only now finding out they were only being declared as Part-Time workers as opposed to them working 40-50+ hours a week, which now means that they will now only be entitled to the reduced allowance for part timers.

“Then we have the situation with the children who were faced with deportation because their parents were not earning enough to keep them here”.

Yet the human element has not been entirely absent in the crisis.

Some migrants who talked to MaltaToday expressed gratitude to employers who have treated them kindly, going to great lengths to keep them in employment, despite seeing a drop in sales. But even these recount stories of friends who were the first to be sacked as soon as things started going south.

While so far it has been largely business-as-usual in the construction industry, with many migrants keeping their jobs, those plying for makeshift jobs on a daily basis are now finding it much harder to survive.

Even in the catering sector, some employers – including big fast food chains who had an infrastructure in place that allowed for a smooth transition to deliveries – have kept their staff including migrants. But others, like smaller restaurants, which had to close down due to a lack of funds, could not afford to keep their staff.

Nagmi Eldin, a Sudanese migrant who currently follows an engineering course at the University of Malta, refers to the uncertainty on whether asylum seekers are eligible for the €800 Euro when they lose their job. Employers are sending them the form to make them eligible for the benefit but some are finding it difficult to complete it for the simple reason they do not possess all the documentation required.

Many have also stopped sending remittances back home. “Desperate measures in desperate times… But our families back home understand the situation here,” Nagmi said.

Maria Pisani: This is a poverty issue, not strictly a migration issue
Maria Pisani: This is a poverty issue, not strictly a migration issue

Social distancing when living with many others

But apart from facing economic uncertainties, migrants are also the most exposed to the risks of infection in their daily lives.

Nagmi described hygiene as “a big problem” not just in closed and open centres, but also in shared overcrowded flats.

“If you stay at home with many others, you may self-isolate yourself as much as you like but you can’t control what others do: they may go out and get infected even if you are in self isolation. You feel exposed all the time.”

Moreover, self-isolation is also difficult because of limited storage space.

“It is difficult to minimise travels to the supermarket, especially when it comes to buying essentials with a short shelf-life, like milk. Moreover, storage space is limited so you cannot just buy in bulk, which means frequent supermarket visits.”

If you are studying and have to follow lectures online, it is also difficult to focus. While many families are struggling to telework while their children are doing their homework, this verges on the impossible in a shared environment where everyone is busy doing different things.

Despite the partial lockdown, migrants obviously remain more visible on the streets than other people.

“Very few people realize that apart from living in over-crowded crazy conditions, in many cases they have to get out first thing in the morning and are not allowed back till late as in after work,” Patricia Graham notes.

The risk of homelessness

When asked about the difficulty faced in paying rent, Nagmi warns that the situation may degenerate over the next few weeks.

“Many are still coping until now… But if the situation persists for another two months, things would get very difficult for many.”

Activists who spoke to MaltaToday referred to reports of an increase in homelessness, especially among those who are unemployed and who can no longer afford to pay exorbitant rents.

Evictions are my “biggest headache” says Patricia Graham who expects landlords to be more considerate.

“I mean… seriously, do they think they are going to rent right now? What’s the point of leaving the place empty and perhaps even vulnerable to security concerns?”

She is also disappointed at the lack of willingness to allow tenants to use their deposits for this month’s rent, until things get back to normal.

“But this is not surprising, as we of course know those deposits are very rarely returned”.

One problem experienced by homeless migrants is that shelters are not accepting new people because of the COVID-19 situation, in which people are only being tested if they experience symptoms of the disease. In such cases, it is imperative that anyone entering the shelter is tested beforehand. But the situation is being resolved, with discussions under way to ensure that everyone requesting shelter is tested beforehand.

The digital divide

Migration activist Maria Pisani from Integra Foundation, refers to access to education as a problem faced by all low-income groups including asylum seekers and refugees.

“This is a poverty issue, not strictly a migration issue”.

Families who do not have access to the internet at home are cut off from the flow of information, something which can be deadly in current circumstances.

“This is always a problem but is intensified by the current situation, as most learning is done online. The digital divide kicks in… children living in poverty face larger barriers”.

While acknowledging that the Migrant Learners’ Unit is doing everything possible to reach out to these categories, Pisani stresses that “there are structural barriers which impact the poorest and children of refugees fall in this category”.

And while migrant and refugee-led organisations are doing lots of work, reaching out, providing information for those living in the community, “because most services have gone online, access to this information is difficult due to lack of access to the internet… which is not a luxury… our collective health security depends on access to the internet for all.”

More in National