The health crisis quickly became a mobility crisis. The limited freedom of movement we all are under is more so for those living away from their home country, whether as long -term emigrants or recent migrants. The more than 11 million migrant domestic and care workers worldwide are especially at risk of contagion but also of unemployment or of being made irregular.
Some of the worst images of suffering come from Ecuador where the epidemic is overwhelming, but underreported. The first Ecuadorian victim apparently was a 70-year old Ecuadorian woman who returned home after having lived many years in Spain. She may have been one of the many Ecuadorians who settled in Spain to work in households. One domestic worker from Guayaquil wrote to us lamenting the curfew in the city, the lack of food and medicine, and the corpses of people who died of the virus abandoned in the street. No one can go out. Cleaners were forced to remain at their employers. Many others have already lost their jobs, either because employers have died, or because employers now fear having strangers in their homes.
The problems for domestic and care workers are not much different in all other countries. Lee, a Filipina migrant in Los Angeles, explains some of the difficulties domestic and care workers face during the stay at home orders issued to combat the pandemic. Despite being considered essential workers, they can’t social distance to do their jobs—and they can’t afford not to work. In normal times, they move from client to client, and are already exposed to pathogens and carcinogens, today they suffer even more with employers often failing to provide protective equipment, like face masks, gloves, or ecological cleaning supplies.
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The undocumented are ineligible to various relief measures. Their lack of jobs has material as well as psychological consequences. When they do work, it threatens their own health and the welfare of those for whom they care.
Lee shares a place with other migrant women. Some of them were labouring in nursing homes and rehabilitation centers that even during the best of times skirted health, safety, and staffing regulations. COVID-19 has spread quickly in such facilities and now her roommates stay home, afraid to return to such places.
A nervous co-worker with a young child asked Lee to take over her weekend shift. With 7 people testing positive from COVID-19 there, and the employers neither telling the workers in a timely manner nor providing protection, Lee now has gone into self-quarantine. Others are no longer allowed to enter mansions in the Hollywood Hills. Without income, they can’t send the remittances that families left behind depend on.
For migrant care workers, the prospect of unemployment is real. Keeping a temporary residence permit depends not only on whether their care-receiver survives the epidemic, but also on conditions in employer households. Given increased suspicion of strangers, the possibility is real that employers will no longer delegate care to people outside the family. As with past epidemic crises, a racist wave against “the Chinese virus,” as US President Donald Trump refers to COVID-19, has swept over the US, exacerbating inward-facing nationalism when a worldwide response is what is urgently needed.
For migrant care workers, the prospect of unemployment is real
In Europe, the epidemic is taking a toll on countries that heavily rely on migrants to assist elderly populations. The European Economic and Social Committee is asking for EU intervention to protect this category of migrant workers. Similar demands are made in a joint statement from employers’ associations which also laments the lack of guidelines on safety at the workplace, to protect caregivers as well as their patients.
In the US, some employers groups like Hand in Hand promote guidelines on how to behave fairly in this situation. Appeals to provide more protection have also spread throughout Italy and Spain. ILO-Italy just published a policy-brief on best practices.
But more than anyone else, it is domestic workers’ organizations who are acting. The International Domestic Workers’ Federation has addressed governments with four demands: “right to safe and hazard-free workplace”; “right to paid sick leave and access to health care”; “coverage of workers’ rights” in case of dismissal; and last but not least “right to information”.
At national levels, a number of organizations carry on support and educational campaigns. In Colombia, they are surveying workers’ necessities to provide relief. In the US, the National Domestic Workers Alliance launched an information hub and care fund for members, offering $400 emergency relief packages. Similar efforts are taking place through the Comisiones Obreras in Spain and among activists in South Africa. Local associations, like LA’s Pilipino Workers Center, distribute care boxes with food and other necessary items. The California Domestic Worker Coalition is campaigning to end the exclusion of domestic and care workers from the state’s occupational health and safety law. With self-help and lobbying, domestic and care workers are seizing the moment to build power and create a more caring society.