ILO warns of migrant workers crisis as Myanmar ponders returnees’ role

The International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that many millions of migrant workers could face unemployment and poverty after losing their jobs abroad due to COVID-19 and returning to their home countries.  

The ILO said millions of migrant workers stranded abroad might be required to return home as countries began easing travel restrictions aimed at containing the virus.

“Even those with jobs may accept reduced wages and cramped worksite accommodations where social distancing is impossible, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus,” it said.

The UN labour body said the families of migrant workers “will suffer financially from the loss of the remittances.”

“This is a potential crisis within a crisis,” said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Equality Department. “We know that many millions of migrant workers, who were under lockdown in their countries of work, have lost their jobs and are now expected to return home to countries that are already grappling with weak economies and rising unemployment. Cooperation and planning are vital to avert a worse crisis.”

An estimated 164 million people are migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them women, comprising 4.7 percent of the global workforce, the ILO said.

Myanmar has seen a steady influx of migrant workers returning from abroad in the past two months, with over 71,000 returning from Thailand alone.

Thousands of Myanmar workers have also returned from China, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea since March.

Over 4 million Myanmar nationals work abroad, including more than 2.3 million in Thailand.

Government, business groups, migrant aid groups and employment agencies have been seeking ways to use the skills of the returnees to aid the country’s development.

U Aung Naing Oo, permanent secretary of the Myanmar Investment Commission, said earlier that regional and state governments are collecting data on the skills of the returning workers to create jobs that match them.

“We plan to use their skills in the country’s economic recovery,” he said.

U Maung Maung Lay, vice president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the plan could help the country’s economy rebound in the post-COVID-19 period.

However, U Htoo Chit, executive director of the Foundation for Education and Development, said that Myanmar must first boost the workers’ daily wages and social welfare services.

He said the government could tap the workers’ skills in agriculture, fishing and construction work if they are paid proper wages.

U Kyaw Myint of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar said Myanmar’s daily minimum wage is K4800, and Thailand’s is 325 baht, or about K15,000.

He said that although he welcomes the plan to survey the returning workers’ skills, it is important to focus on the working conditions in the country.

He added that his group will cooperate with the government to provide jobs for the returnees, depending on their skills.

U Peter Nyunt Maung, deputy chair of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, said recently that the thousands of Myanmar workers returning from Thailand would most likely not get their jobs back, as the Thai government would prioritise giving the jobs to Thais when its economy reopens.

The ILO said countries such as Myanmar need to have social protections in place for returning workers to help reintegrate them into the national workforce.

“Returning migrant workers bring skills and talent that could help their countries rebuild better after the pandemic,” the ILO said.  “However, the key to unlocking this potential is the establishment of a rights-based and orderly return and reintegration system, access to social protections, and proper skills recognition.”

Michelle Leighton, chief of the ILO’s Labour Migration Department said, “with the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery.”

“These migrants will bring with them talents and new skills, and in some cases capital, that can support efforts in their home countries to rebuild better. We must help these countries grasp the opportunity,” she said.

Written by Tint Zaw Tun and John Grafilo
Source: Myanmar Times
Published on 26 June 2020

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