One year COVID: effects on undocumented migrant workers

One year into the pandemic, it has become clear that Covid-19 disproportionally affects vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants and low-income families or single-parent families. In the case of Belgium, researchers of our own university are documenting multiple forms of vulnerability, related to physical health, societal position (including residence status) and lack of communication. The effect of Covid-19 and the lockdown measures on undocumented migrant workers remains a blind spot though; there is no systematic data collection. This leaves migrant workers feeling left out and forgotten. Even in ‘normal’ circumstances, their undocumented status makes it harder for them to claim basic human rights such as the right to housing, education and, most importantly during this time, healthcare.

Our research1, although based on a limited number of interviews and thus not representative, showed that the pandemic and the concomitant measures to fight it had an intrusive effect on everyone’s life. We documented a series of economic effects, social consequences, effects on wellbeing and mental health as well as administrative and technical difficulties that come up in their integration  process.

Economic effects

The life stories illustrate that whereas some workers have been out of a job for months on end, others have been working for reduced pay. Still others did manage to get some kind of stability in their employment situation. Those who lost their job were often the first ones fired by their employer, due to their undocumented status.

Social distancing and compulsory teleworking measures were put in place, with exceptions for essential sectors such as retail, health, police etc. Many undocumented migrants work in sectors that are disproportionally affected by the pandemic and where telework is not possible: hospitality (hotels, restaurants, bars), domestic work, cleaning, etc. In many cases, those sectors have been shut down completely, or work has reduced significantly. Sandra from Peru explains I know people that have been really affected because of COVID. I lost two job opportunities. And because of COVID, the families say: ‘Now I’m working from home, in this online work. So I will take care of cleaning the house because they have more time. So it’s better that you don’t come anymore’”. The uncertainty about the duration of the measures causes stress because of the unpredictability of their financial situation.

While facing loss of income in Belgium, many migrant workers simultaneously felt an increasing financial pressure from family and friends back home. One interviewee from the Philippines told us she used to send money to her children and family. With one son unemployed due to the pandemic, and other children having to invest in tools for online education, her financial burden increased. Many immigrants living in Belgium work in low-skilled jobs that require long working hours with minimum pay. However, due to job losses in other sectors as a result of the pandemic, many migrants now face increased precariousness by having to compete for jobs with non-migrants.

Fiona from Kenya expressed this as follows: “Now people lost jobs. And that also got me too worried that I will also never get a job because now we are even more trying to look for similar jobs. And from that way of thinking, it kind of also pushed me lower. And that’s why I started to think maybe it would be better to go back to school. But then going back to school, what I want to study, I can’t afford it. (…) I still see jobs being advertised, I still try to apply for them. But I feel right now, there are more people with experience that are applying for the same jobs as the last option, and it doesn’t make it easier. COVID made more people apply for the same jobs you’re also looking for and that it would diminish your chances even further.”

Social and mental health impact

Linked to but also beyond the economic impact, several migrant workers also highlight the effect of COVID on their social life and the consequences for their (mental) health. As for everyone, the reduced social life – not being able to see friends and/or family as much as before – weighs on migrant workers’ wellbeing. For the undocumented workers this might be even more pronounced. Some of them live in with their employers; others live in small rooms or apartments with limited facilities. Jollie from Cameroon explained: “It is really hard. We had to stay in a room with 5 other people so I stayed all day in bed… now I can go out a little bit more so I tried to work.. and I go to appointments with doctors and psychologists.” The closing of the borders and the ban on non-essential travel also made family visits more difficult for both documented and undocumented migrants.

On top of the stressful (living) situation in Belgium, several of the undocumented migrants have already experienced intense stress, conflict or violence before coming to Belgium. Eyad from Palestine has witnessed these effects: “There is too much stress, also for my wife and for the children. (…) For other people with relations, there are a lot of divorces, a lot of aggression, people are just starting to lose their minds (…) People from Syria, they have actually enough problems with the war and trauma and then the corona is extra for them because (…) they do not have the moment and the space to be calmed.”

These experiences can weigh heavily and COVID-related stress can aggravate already existing mental health issues. At the same time the mental health sector is overburdened, limiting opportunities to get help. Precarious living and working conditions, where social distancing is almost non-existent, have led to a further deterioration of many migrant workers’ mental health status. Language barriers can be a hurdle for migrants to seek help.

Undocumented migrants do have access to the health system, but often they do not have sufficient information. The Belgian government along with other EU member states is offering free medical care for all COVID-related healthcare for all migrants – both documented and undocumented. However, some respondents still mentioned that they were scared of getting ill because of not having health insurance. As a result, they were very strict in adhering to all COVID rules, even though they were more likely to get exposed as a result of their jobs. Take for example Abasi, an Egyptian migrant worker: “I follow the rules and regulations strictly because I do not have a medical certificate to get medical service in case I get ill. I take care of myself and really apply the rules set by the government including mouth mask”

Social upgrading

In many of the life stories, the key ingredients to a successful social upgrading strategy for undocumented migrants were ‘papers’ and ‘learning the language’. Both elements are often mentioned as crucial for the integration in the formal labour market as well as social integration into ‘full citizenship’.

Again, also for social upgrading strategies the corona situation has made some of these processes even more difficult. For example, a migrant worker from Morocco testifies how the process of applying for a residence permit has become more difficult. While before, there were face-to-face meetings and one could physically go to the offices with questions or queries, now online appointments needed to be made. Online communication might be more difficult because of language issues – it is more difficult to express oneself in front of a screen – and because of limited internet access.

The other key entry point towards integration, being able to speak the language, was also hampered by the pandemic. Some classes were suspended or re-organised online, thereby reducing the interaction and learning.

Additionally, digital payments have become the norm during the pandemic. However, without official papers, it is not possible to open a bank account. Katerina, a migrant from Ukraine, told us: “Before, I can pay by cash, now everything is almost by card. I don’t have a bank account in my name yet because of the legal papers. Sometimes I ask my boyfriend if I can use his card to pay. Before, I used the night shops to pay for rent, electricity for transfers. Now, those shops are limited. Very difficult.”

Resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of economic hardship with many social and (mental) health consequences for all. However, the life stories we collected highlight how the consequences of the pandemic and the measures taken to fight it affect vulnerable people such as undocumented migrants more harshly than others. Many of them cannot (or are afraid to) access government-provided support. They were hit harder, and have no safety net to absorb these shocks.

Nevertheless, the life stories also highlight the remarkable level of resilience. Migrant workers have an incredible ability to cope with adversity and shocks.  Eyad from Palestine concludes: “ (…) I need to work. And that was my goal to get work. That was actually my dream to have a job. And I heard in the beginning that if you learn Dutch, we can find quick work. Then I took two courses (…) I work in IKEA from five in the morning, till 10. Then I go back home. Then I go to learn Dutch. And after that I go back to the university. And then I work at night in a carwash. I was doing some cleaning in the car wash at night. So it was every three, four months, I have another new work or something like this. And I had to manage this”.


1 This blog fits in a series of blog posts based on essays written by 12 students in the Master in Globalization at IOB, as part of their assignment for the subunit Global Organization of Production. The other six posts are collectively authored by the 12 students and the lecturer and may reproduce parts of the original essays.