“The Chain has been Broken…”

Pandemic shows importance of migrant labor

The coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the world and the accompanying quarantine measures have tested many forms of our existence. Staggering changes to the convenient “unity” of the global market, European transnationality, and the customary pace of exchanging goods, services, and technologies have been noted repeatedly. Developed countries have discovered supply problems with basic necessities like medical masks that they have not produced at home for a long time and have instead purchased from China. It turns out that Europeans cannot even produce these simple items themselves and have not been able to learn over three months of acute need and shortages, so have been forced to bring them in from China again.

Another enormous and really quite obvious problem has also come to light: Developed countries cannot get by without imported labor. It’s a paradox: The main problem the world is facing as it comes out of quarantine is unemployment, yet there’s no one to work in the fields or at construction sites, or to manufacture essential items (food products and those same masks). All this work was done either in other countries, from which it is now more difficult to import goods, or domestically by migrants, who have gone home after losing their jobs because of quarantine.

Migrants’ loss of work, income, and the ability to survive is a colossal disaster of our time. As Nikolai Nekrasov wrote about the abolition of serfdom, “the chain has broken up, the links have snapped, hitting the baron with one end and the peasant with the other.” Employers have lost cheap labor, and migrants have lost the ability to feed themselves and their children. Everyone has set their sights on the same thing—the lifting of quarantine—so they can restart work, exploit laborers from poor counties, and earn income. But new viruses and quarantines are not just possible, but highly likely. The fact that foreign labor is not suitable for these situations deserves some thought and, accordingly, a global overhaul. But it doesn’t appear that the world has started to consider this yet.

Another problem has come to light: the hypocrisy of principles about the social safety net in developed (read: wealthy) countries. People who work on the problems of migrants have long understood that the benefit of hiring poor foreign workers is directly connected to saving money on social protection measures. Salaries for “locals” and foreigners do not differ greatly in many spheres of employment (retail, construction, gas stations), but employers do not have to pay anything else like vacation pay, pension contributions, or health insurance for the latter. All of these risks fall on the migrants themselves, and if they are not able to work because of illness or age, they are left without a penny to their names. Everyone who has hired a nanny from Kyrgyzstan for their children or paid an Uzbek home attendant to care for a sick relative knows that these people cost their employers exactly what they are paid. When employment is arranged properly, every employer spends a significant amount of money on taxes and social payments, meaning that workers cost an additional at least one-third, and in some countries, one-half of their salaries.

Who needs these nannies and home attendants now when people are home, in quarantine? And if they’re not needed, then they are let go that very minute without any severance pay. Hiring people in this manner for work at construction sites or in the fields is also a common way of saving money. No one needs any of these people anymore: workplaces are closed, there’s no insurance for loss of work, and the state “doesn’t owe them anything” because their salaries were not entirely legal. People are now starving in the country where they worked, or, if they managed to leave, in their countries of origin, which are also in deep crisis, and not just because of the epidemic: These countries have become accustomed to living on transfers from migrant workers. That money has dried up. Completely.

Also starving are people who work “far” from Europe—people who sewed cheap clothes in Bangladesh and India, who grew roses, asparagus, and so forth in the fields of Kenya and Ethiopia. For residents of wealthy countries, the price of having all these luxuries easily accessible was the vulnerability of the producers. The chain reaction of the economic crisis reached poor countries in no time at all: Once markets and stores closed, there was nowhere to sell these clothes at knock-down prices, so there was no point in producing them and factories closed. Air travel has almost completely stopped, so there’s no way to deliver fresh roses from Africa, and European masters have stopped paying people in the fields.

Moreover, it is very hard, if not impossible, for consumers to make ethical choices. Let’s say that conscientious consumers are prepared to pay more for an item so that social protection for the workers who produced it is included in the cost. The problem is that there are very few goods available at an “honest price,” and some necessities are not available at all. OK, so we can not buy 10 pairs of shoes every season and instead try to find one pair from a socially responsible producer, we can forgo roses and asparagus, but what if we can only buy masks from a Chinese manufacturer? And the problem here isn’t even social protection. We have no idea if these goods from China were made in Xinjiang torture camps where Uighurs and other Muslims are repressed.

Europeans, Americans, Australians all shifted production to other countries where it was more favorable and cheaper for them to do what they could have done just as easily at home. They are now dependent on links with these countries, and this doesn’t refer just to transportation links, but also to political, economic, and environmental risks.

The word “risk” is a very important word in the 21st century. Everyone is always “calculating risks,” preparing “risk mitigation plans,” spending a massive amount of money and time discussing and preventing risks. The International Organization for Migration also constantly makes statements on this topic. I myself even participated in a 2015 conference where representatives from many dozens of countries discussed exactly what is happening now—protection of migrants from “global risks,” that is, epidemics, catastrophes, nuclear explosions. Over several days of talks involving members of the government and experts from international organizations, I did not once hear anything about how a plan to protect this group, which would become truly vulnerable in the face of a disaster, would actually work. It all boiled down to yet more proposals to “adopt a course of action.”

And lo and behold: there were no plans, and there aren’t any now. Some compassionate people are holding sporadic actions by trying to feed migrants in Saint Petersburg, creating the threat of another Khodynka and fines for violating quarantine, or by hanging bags of food on fences for the homeless and the hungry. Of course, these good deeds are not going to solve the overall problem, but they do generate sympathy for people who are trying to do something, effective or not, who are trying to share.

It’s not just the problem of hungry migrants left in Russia that remains unresolved. The only solution both the migrants themselves and the Russian government see is to give these hapless people work again (as the mayor of Moscow has stated openly). There is no real answer to the truly global challenge of the times: We cannot live any longer on the labor of people from poor countries. Not only is this unethical (a question that has troubled some people for some time but is really not important to others), it is also impractical. There’s been enough talk about risks—here they are, with us, right now. We need to change the labor system, make it more honest, sensible, and effective. Even if that makes it more expensive.

Stefania Kulaeva – expert, Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda

Photo by Ute Weinmann