Building Back Better: Factoring in Migrant Workers

Migrant workers and the post-COVID world

Migrant workers have to be factored into any plans to rebuild economies in a post COVID19 world.[1] They deserve attention in both countries of destination and origin because they were among the workers hardest hit by lockdown measures and because, while often unwanted, they will still be needed for economies to Build Back Better in the future.Many migrant workers were forced to return to their home countries, but were unable to do so either because borders were closed or - as for dozens of domestic workers in Lebanon - because their employers could not afford to pay the much higher cost of repatriation flights due to COVID19. Other migrants instead returned to the countries that they had left due to the poor employment opportunities. Importantly, the pandemic has exposed the essential role that migrant workers play in numerous economic sectors worldwide.  

Facts and Figures 

Migrant workers on average represent 4.7 per cent of the global labour pool, comprising 164 million workers (ILO 2018), with nearly half being women. The majority of these workers are employed in highincome (67.9 per cent) or uppermiddleincome countries (18.6 per cent).  

In many countries migrant workers represent a significant share of the workforce and make important contributions to societies and economies, with generally higher labour force participation rates compared to national workers (ILO 2018).  

Yet migrant workers have typically been excluded from the scope of wage subsidies or other social protection measures put in place to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. This is because they usually engage in temporary, and often informal, employment or are recruited through opaque subcontracting arrangements. 

Overrepresentation in Essential and Often PoorQuality Jobs 

As the COVID19 pandemic has highlighted, migrant workers often carry out essential jobs in healthcare, construction, transport, services, and agriculture and agrofood processing.[2] Women migrant workers represent a significant share of those in domestic work, making up 73.4 per cent (or 8.45 million) of all migrant domestic workers (ILO 2015).  

Jobs that have been described as “essential” during the pandemic often also happen to be jobs that are particularly strenuous, precarious, and lowpaid, with unpaid overtime often being the norm, and are therefore eschewed by local populations. Slaughter houses and meatpacking plants were news items in countries such as the United States and Germany because of the high prevalence of COVID19 cases in these workplaces, which, in the case of Germany, forced the region housing the slaughter house to be quarantined (The Economist 2020). At the same time, the public learned that many of the workers concerned were migrants, living in crowded and infectionprone dormitories. Indeed, the harsh conditions and often poor working conditions that prevail make working in these sectors less appealing to nationals, even when they are facing losses in their livelihoods. Agriculture is a case in point. Many industrialised countries rely on seasonal foreign workers during harvests and planting, and farmers had problems filling open positions due to border closures. City dwellers would and could not easily replace these workers, as it turned out that jobs in agriculture required particular skills- a fact previously not recognised (ILO 2020c). To Build Back Better, a change of perspective is needed regarding the social value placed on sectors with a high prevalence of migrant workers. Facilitating the recognition of prior learning might play a positive role in retention (of any workers whether locals or migrants), and Public Employment Services (PES) could help in this process (ILO 2020c). 


Migrant workers have found themselves stranded in host countries without access to social protection. Along with high levels of unemployment, the pandemic has brought rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia against migrant workers, food insecurity, worsening working conditions, including reduction or nonpayment of wages, cramped or inadequate living conditions where social distancing is impossible, restrictions on movements, as well as higher levels of violence and harassment, particularly for those in domestic work (ILO 2020aBegum 2020Caraballo 2020). 

The ILOestimated that, in the second quarter of 2020 alone, the drop in global working hours among workers in the informal economy was equivalent to the loss of over 305 million fulltime jobs (ILO 2020b). This is significant for migrant workers. Recent ILO research highlights that nearly 75 per cent of migrant women and 70 per cent of migrant men are working in the informal economy in many low and middleincome countries.[3]

As containment measures ease, millions of migrant workers may be required to return home to low and middleincome countries where labour markets are already weakened by the additional strain of high levels of unemployment and serious business disruptions due to the pandemic (ILO 2020b). Moreover, migrant workers’ families will suffer financially from the loss of the remittances normally sent to them.[4]


While a slowdown in demand for foreign labour is most likely in the coming months due to the contraction of growth in many rich and emerging economies, labour migration will not stop altogether, and nor would this be desirable. The creation of decent and productive employment is essential for recovery in countries around the world, and particularly critical for migrant workers if they are not to fall further behind in realising the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals contained in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. How well labour migration is managed can make a difference. 

Governments can seize the opportunity in rebuilding their economies back better by adopting rightsbased and genderresponsive labour migration governance frameworks, which support a wholeofgovernment and wholeofsociety approach, as called for by the Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. By creating coherence between migration and employment policies, and building on dialogue between governments and employers’ and workers’ organisations, and between the social partners themselves, such frameworks can lead to a fairer distribution of the prosperity that men and women migrant workers help to create, and can respond more equitably to the interests of countries of origin, transit and destination (ILO 2020d). International labour standards, and especially fundamental rights at work should provide “a decent work compass” to guide more immediate and longerterm recovery responses that both protect migrant workers and meet labour market needs (ILO 1949a1949b1975a1975b20162020d2020e). At the same time, it is indispensable that all workers, regardless of their contractual status or nationality, are afforded adequate labour and social protection. This is key to avoiding the misuse of certain work arrangements and reducing social dumping and unfair competition among enterprises, while preventing discrimination against migrant workers. 

A number of areas will need specific attention in government policy responses to building stronger and more resilient economies.  


  • Tackle deceptive and abusive practices in the recruitment of migrant workers by implementing ILO fair recruitment standards and guidelines, thereby eliminating the fees and costs paid by migrant workers and helping to prevent forced labour and trafficking in persons.  

  • Inform policies with more robust data collection, sharing, and analysis.  

  • Ensure social protection systems are more inclusive of migrant workers (ILO 2019). 

  • Adopt programmes to develop migrant workers’ skills, at all skill levels, to provide access to skill recognition systems, and to strengthen labour market institutions and social dialogue. 

  • Utilise bilateral and multilateral cooperation, including bilateral labour migration agreements (BLMAs), to promote decent work across migration corridors, as well as fostering economic support for migrants who have lost their jobs and helping prepare them for reintegration into home labour markets. The ILO and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are leading the UN Network on Migration effort to adopt UN systemwide guidance on BLMAs that can help foster this cooperation. 

  • Facilitate sustainable and successful labour market reintegration. This should recognise the skills and talent, knowledge, and capital that migrant workers bring to their home economies to rebuild after the pandemic.  

Most important of all, labour migration must be integrated into broader thinking on industry, education, labour market, taxation and welfare. Migrant workers are a fundamental part of the global economy; they play essential roles in several sectors and should therefore benefit from pay rises and any other improvements, if and where these occur, along with local workers. 


[1] This note is based on various ILO reports produced since COVID19 pandemic, and with thanks for the contributions of Michelle Leighton and Christiane Kuptsch. 

[2] ILO estimates 11.5 million migrant workers are in domestic work, many in homecare jobs (ILO 2018).

[3] Data on informal migrant workers from countries with available data (Amo-Agyei 2020). 

[4] The World Bank estimates have reached US$689 billion in 2018 (World Bank 2019).


The Author

Manuela Tomei
is Director of the Conditions of Work and Equality Department at the International Labour Office.

This article was first published in 2020 as part of the publication “Building Back Better: A Call for Courage”. To read the full publication (available in English, Spanish, and French) or to listen to the podcast series where the authors discuss their papers click here.

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