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COVID-19 and Undocumented Workers

Three workers carrying bushels on their shoulders in a field
Undocumented workers harvest zucchini on a farm in Almeria, Spain, on February 23, 2014. © Bridgette Auger/Redux

Migrant workers, including undocumented immigrants, play an essential role in the global economy. They work in critical sectors like agriculture, domestic work, and the service industries, in the United States, Europe, and beyond. These workers have been hit hard by the global economic crisis wrought by COVID-19. Despite the pivotal role they play, millions of immigrant workers and families have been left largely to fend for themselves in this crisis, because they have not been included in government assistance.

How many people are we talking about?

In the United States, there are an estimated 8 million undocumented workers, accounting for over four percent of the total workforce. In New York City alone, there are estimated to be 646,000 undocumented workers. One in six undocumented workers lost their job in New York City as a result of the pandemic. In California, undocumented workers make up roughly a tenth of the state’s total workforce. In Europe, there are an estimated 4 million undocumented migrants, two-thirds of them living in Germany, France, the UK, and Italy. In the Arab States, an estimated 23 million migrant workers make up an average 70 percent of the workforce in the Gulf states.

Is any government funding reaching undocumented workers?

Mostly, no. In the United States, in April, the federal government distributed $1,200 in emergency income support to anyone with a social security number who had paid federal income taxes. But this aid was not available to anyone without a social security number nor entire families if one member of the family was undocumented. In the United States and elsewhere, efforts to extend government support to undocumented workers have faced political opposition from some conservative and nationalist voices. But:

Pre-COVID, how much did undocumented workers contribute to the local economy?

In the United States, undocumented workers contribute $11.7 billion dollars [PDF] a year in state and local taxes. Globally, migrant workers sent an estimated $625 billion, to family in their countries of origin, in 2017.

If financial support is available, how can it be distributed?

Many undocumented workers live in fear of being detained and deported—but often have close ties with other members of their communities, and with social, labor, and religious groups. This means that trusted local community and advocacy groups can play a vital role in delivering emergency support during this pandemic, and can work with both local government and private philanthropic funders to ensure that funding reaches those in need.

In the United States, Open Society is working closely with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which had already developed an online payment system, Alia, that it is using to administer a self-funded benefits system for domestic workers who are predominantly women, often undocumented, and mostly without bank accounts. The Open Society Foundations are supporting the National Domestic Workers Alliance to build out the Alia platform so that it can assist a broader range of essential workers in the United States who are vulnerable to the economic fallout of the crises, including undocumented workers.

How can undocumented workers be protected from the risks of COVID-19?

Beyond the economic impact, undocumented workers and their families are particularly at risk. Many are involved in essential work that is continuing—such as food supply and retailing—and live in dormitories or crowded apartments where there is a higher risk of contagion. Migrant workers must be made eligible for paid time off and sick leave so as to ensure that they aren’t forced to choose between going to work sick and losing their livelihoods when they are taken ill. As millions of essential workers lose their jobs as a result of the economic shut down, few have income to fall back on because of low wages, lack of severance and exclusion from unemployment insurance and other social safety nets as a result of their legal status.

Guarantees must also be put in place to ensure that they are not at risk of losing their jobs or being reported to the authorities if they present themselves at a hospital or health care facility for care, or if they speak up about the workplace health and safety concerns or labor rights violations. In most countries, primary health care is inaccessible to people with irregular migration status. This means, in many cases, limited or no access to a general practitioner, and no right to subsidized care except in the case of emergencies. As this crisis has demonstrated clearly, health care for one is health care for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder, too, of the need for quality jobs with livable wages and benefits, including paid leave, universal health care, and an inclusive social safety net that reaches the most marginalized in our societies.

Shouldn’t this work be the responsibility of government?

Yes. For too long, government has exploited the role of low-cost undocumented labor, without taking steps to regularize the status of millions of workers—a workforce that is painfully exposed even in the best of times. Private funders and civil society groups are now the main source of emergency support for many of these workers during the pandemic.

Some governments have responded with recognition of the role that these workers play. Italy has said it will give temporary work permits to more than half a million undocumented migrants deemed essential to picking crops and caring for the elderly as part of a €50 billion stimulus package. The package also requires local government to take steps to improve unsanitary living conditions.

What is Open Society doing?

In addition to the $20 million in funding to New York City mentioned above, Open Society is committing an additional $12 million to cities and counties across the United States. We are also providing $2 million to the Coronavirus Care Fund of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and $2.8 million to support the development of the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Alia platform. In addition to this emergency support, we continue to provide support for community, labor, and policy advocacy groups that advocate for holistic responses to challenges faced by workers and immigrants writ large, including the specific issues faced by undocumented workers and their families.

In addition, Open Society continues to support local workers’ rights organizations across the Arab region and in Asia, Central America, and Mexico, to advocate for safe, decent, and healthy work environments for migrant workers.

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