Post-COVID bulletin: The future of migrant work

Post-COVID bulletin: The future of migrant work

“May we work together to advance towards a new horizon of love and peace, of fraternity and solidarity, of mutual support and acceptance.”  Pope Francis

M&R BULLETIN #7 | August 2021

The future of migrant work


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the economy as well as on public health, generating concerns about employment in the long term. In particular, it brought to light the fragile situations of temporary workers. Many of these are migrants, without proper documentation, unable to file for benefits. Their work is usually defined as informal, with no legal contract, insecure, and marked by hazardous working conditions, little recourse under the law, and little support from local authorities.

The health crisis has greatly impacted migrant workers’ lives. Many of them lost their jobs, with no way to face increasing debts. A number ended up with no money to support their family and often obliged to go back home without any prospects or plans in place. This has also had negative effects on family life, with psychosocial trauma caused, among other things, by an increase in children’s absence from school, domestic violence, and human trafficking. 

On the other hand, invisible migrant workers have become visible, during this time of COVID crisis, since many work in essential economic sectors that didn’t stop during lockdown.  Thus, the pandemic has made clearer the need to promote the human dignity and rights of all migrant workers. 

Catholic social teaching has long affirmed the dignity of work and urged that all workers be respected and valued. This bulletin surveys positions of the Catholic Church, local churches and other charitable organizations on behalf of migrant workers during the pandemic.

The Church advocates respect for the dignity of migrant workers

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed deep concern for workers, particularly for migrants. In the
message for the 104th world day of migrants and refugees (2018), the Holy Father encouraged “a determined effort to promote the social and professional inclusion of migrants and refugees, guaranteeing for all – including those seeking asylum – the possibility of employment, language instruction and active citizenship, together with sufficient information provided in their mother tongue.” On that occasion, he also stressed the urgency of regulations concerning underaged migrant workers, in order to “prevent exploitation and risks to their normal growth and development.”

Shortly after International Workers’ Day 2020, the Pope took a stand on behalf of workers’ dignity, particularly migrants, despite economic difficulties brought on by the coronavirus crisis. He made particular mention of the exploitation of farmworkers in Italy, most of whom are migrants. The Holy Father added his voice to defend all exploited workers: “I invite everyone to turn the crisis into an occasion where the dignity of the person and the dignity of work can be put back at the centre of things.” 

Pope Francis sent a video message for the 109th meeting of the International Labour Organisation in June 2021, in which he called for concerted action in favour of workers on the margins of the labour market who are still affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these are migrants, notes the Pope, who are victims of “this philosophy of exclusion that we have become accustomed to imposing in our societies.” A constructive and truthful dialogue aimed at changing this “philosophy of exclusion” cannot leave aside the most vulnerable, but rather should include them as dialogue partners with equal rights and obligations. Pope Francis proposed the Church’s experience of bridge-building among communities as a model to follow in the quest for uniform regulations applicable to work in all its different aspects, as a guarantee for workers, for integral human development, and for the common good.

Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, intervened at the 59th Session of the Commission for Social Development on 16 February 2021, dedicated to the role of digital technologies in social development. Abp. Caccia emphasized how digital technologies can support migrants and refugees. As an example, ensuring internet access to migrant workers is a way of helping them identify new job opportunities and reducing the transaction cost of remittances. “Another way technology can assist migrants and refugees is through secure, digital identification, to better facilitate their protection and integration while also maintaining their privacy,” added the Apostolic Nuncio.

Finally, the Economics Taskforce of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission (VCC-19) produced an executive summary on the migrant workforce during the pandemic. The document recognises the disparate situations that many migrant workers have had to face during the COVID-19 crisis, especially those in seasonal workforces. “Many of these workers are not recognised under national labour laws and work informally –  they simply do not exist,” the VCC-19 notes. The document points out the failure to regulate migrants, seasonal workers, caregivers, and domestic workers, which exposes them to great health and economic risks.  On the other hand, “giving these groups legal status and providing them with health and social protection would ensure widespread social security and prevent the spread of the virus.”

The evangelical mission in support of migrant workers

Migrant workers usually experience prolonged separation from their families, economic hardship, exclusion, and discrimination. Catholic actors are therefore engaged in providing concrete aid, social protection and spiritual support.

The project RADIX – Alle Radici del Problema (IT), promoted by Kairos social cooperative in collaboration with the Scalabrini Agency for Cooperation and Development, supports migrants at risk of labour exploitation, providing them with support and guidance in the exercise of their rights as workers and citizens. One strong element of the project, the free Empowerment Labs (EL), are designed to strengthen skills and guide migrants in the domains of work, housing, and the economy. The EL are addressed to men and women migrants between 18 and 45 years of age, whether legally residing in Italy, seeking residence renewal, refugees, or applicants for international protection.

The Salesian service “Don Bosco for Migrants” (DB4M) has launched an all-India helpline for migrant workers. Initially this line will be available to callers in eight languages – other languages will be added later – with a capacity to help up to 15 people at once. Some of the services to be offered, explains Fr Bosco Francis, Director of DB4M, are: “connecting source and destination areas, legal aid, advocacy to get minimum wages, decent work and living conditions, to listen to their grievances, to assist in procuring their entitlements like Aadhaar, PDS, Health Insurance.” He said this would also act as a sort of sentinel against child labour, bonded labour, and human trafficking. 

Migrant workers in the municipality of Odemira in Portugal face multiple problems. The diocesan Caritas of Beja has a local centre for the support of the integration of migrants (PT), funded by the High Commissioner for Migration, where initial assistance is provided to help these people to solve administrative and residency problems, attend interviews with the Immigration and Border Service, etc. At the Ecclesia agency, Isaurindo Oliveira reported that the link between farm and migrant workers is often “through an intermediary” and their contracts are “often precarious, dubious, [and] false”. It is in this context that the first contacts of migrants with diocesan Caritas begin, since wages are reduced or even denied.

Following the Burlington Diocesan Synod in the US state of Vermont, members of St. Peter Church in Vergennes and St. Ambrose Church in Bristol decided to heed the synod’s call for parishes to be more involved in evangelization through service to local migrant workers. Relatively few migrant workers had been attending Mass in the region due to the language barrier, and the number had further decreased with the pandemic. St. Peter parishioners formed the Migrant Outreach Team to meet with the workers, learn about their needs, and determine how parishioners could help. One of the first things done by the pastor, Fr. Royer, was to learn the prayer of absolution in Spanish so he could give absolution after hearing the workers’ confessions with the help of an online translation program. Twenty-seven parishioners took Spanish classes in the parish hall, and some began driving workers to daily liturgy. They also provided the workers with boots, jackets, clothing, and even air conditioning. Members of the Migrant Outreach Team realised the importance of the migrant workers’ labour. “They leave home and come to work here on our farms so we can have good food on our tables,” said Donna Fox, a member of St. Ambrose Church. “We are so grateful, and this is a way to give back.”

Looking at the future of migrant work

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) has published two books, entitled
Driven by the Depth of Love and Towards a Better World, presenting the findings of its research on migrant workers’ experiences, their testimonies, and examples of person-centered responses to labour migration. The research report Towards a Better World explores different aspects of migrant experiences in the world of work, e.g., why they decide to migrate, the challenges and opportunities they face along the way, and their living and working conditions. Examples of best practices are proposed to show how Catholic and other faith-inspired organizations serve internal and international migrants in various places throughout the world. Migrants themselves are given the floor in Driven by the Depth of Love. This work of photojournalism highlights the living conditions and daily challenges of migrant workers, putting a human face on the phenomenon of migration. A website features the full content of both publications.

Caritas Europa’s policy paper “Demystifying the regularisation of undocumented migrants” not only highlights the challenges that undocumented migrants face, but also the contributions they make to our societies. Indeed, key economic sectors would not function without the hard work of undocumented workers. While regularisation of undocumented workers is considered taboo for some, it might bring people fully into the economy, increase tax revenues, and redress failures in immigration and asylum law and procedures. For this reason, Caritas invites us to see the regularisation of undocumented migrants in the broader context of expanding regular migration pathways and addressing informal economies and exploitation. 

Chapter 3 of the Caritas In Veritate Foundation Working Paper “Rethinking Labour, Ethical Reflections on the Future of Work”, focuses on Migration and Decent Work Conditions in Countries of Origin and Destination. The paper outlines an ethical vision of migrants and labour as part of a broader analysis of the future of work and its implications for international migrants. The chapter ends with a series of policy recommendations intended to guide the development of a person-centred vision of migration and labour at a time of upheaval and uncertainty in the global labour market, amid record and still growing numbers of international migrants.

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