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The price for turning a blind eye to migrant workers

Ding CEO Mark Roden argues for steps to make it easier for workers to access digital services.

Mark Roden, Ding

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Singapore – technocratic, efficient, capable of containing Covid-19 – was recently forced to impose East Asia’s strictest lockdown. The loss of liberties to all of its residents in recent days has been swift and uncompromising, and comes in stark contrast to other parts of Asia Pacific, from Taiwan to New Zealand, who are now emerging from the deep freezer of disease. 

From attracting attention worldwide for how rapidly they got the virus under control, to now becoming the posterchild for how easily it can return and the perils of coming out of lockdown too soon – Singapore is providing a timely lesson for us all. 

This second peak of infections also highlights how overlooking the wellbeing of migrant and low-income workers comes at a price. Taking a dual track approach to protecting citizens will not work.

Singapore was forced to ramp up and extend restrictions as cases began to emerge from huge dormitories crammed with low-wage migrant workers living in unsanitary conditions. It’s a scene out of a Dickens novel, hardly what we would expect from one of the world’s most shining financial centres and a leader in smart-city living. But Singapore is not unique. One finds such conditions all around the world. 

The international media has documented the conditions of these dorms, but what’s going unsaid is that the entire population is now paying a price for previously turning a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in their midst.

Overlook at your peril

Over the course of April, Singapore’s coronavirus caseload soared from approximately 1,000 people to over 15,500, the majority of these coming from its migrant workers. The government’s measures to fight Covid-19 hadn’t taken these workers’ conditions into account, and now the island’s wealthy bankers, tech stars and businesspeople are so restricted that they cannot even step outside their flat with family members.

This is a lesson for other wealthy countries trying to navigate between the devil of disease and the deep blue sea of economic collapse: we cannot succeed unless we include everyone in our society, especially the weakest links; all too often that means the foreign workers that are exploited to dig tunnels and erect the city’s skyscrapers, farm produce and cook meals, care for our elderly and staff our hospitals.

There is no member of our society as resilient as a migrant worker. These labourers are not a monolith, and conditions vary among countries, but as a group in 2019 they sent a combined $554 billion back to their families in their place of origin. That tidal flow – more than three times all development aid, according to the World Bank – is a crucial lifeline for a billion people in poor countries.

Lockdowns are taking a scythe to these payments, however: the World Bank estimates remittances will decline by 20% this year. Most of these workers do not have a bank account. Some rely on global money transfer operators like Western Union, but most of them pass money, and other types of value such as paying bills and sending mobile airtime, back home through mom-and-pop shops or convenience stores like 7-11 that accept cash-in/cash-out arrangements with remittance businesses.

The changing definition of ‘essential’

In good times, these remitters charge high fees and getting the money to the family back home can be slow. Lockdowns in many wealthy countries now mean workers can’t reach the shop. Developed countries have allowed “essential” businesses to continue, such as banks. But they generally do not consider remittance services as essential – another example of how our preference to look away from poor foreign laborers in our midst is worsening the impact of Covid-19. It is an oversight that is easily corrected.

In the absence of visiting stores, workers are turning to digital solutions. Online services charge lower fees, and are certainly safer, in that users can avoid the handling of physical banknotes, which may be feared to tainted by the virus.

Mobile solutions to transfer money are proliferating. In addition to remittance transfers, workers can also use their phone to transfer cellular voice and data – which are also vital, allowing them to speak with their families, a blessing in an otherwise scary time. Mobile carriers and “superapps” based on e-commerce in Asia are also doing business by carrying more remittances and data over their networks.

Connecting to online shopping platforms can allow a migrant worker to purchase goods on behalf of their family back home and get them delivered. These digital capabilities highlight another example of the rich world’s reliance on its migrant workers: a remittance fintech in Hong Kong says a large portion of its March volumes were due to wealthy families asking their maids to use their mobile wallets to purchase surgical masks back home, in Manila or Jakarta, and have a family member post them back to the family in Hong Kong.

For the most part, the entwining of digital platforms is making it easier for migrants and their families to get access to food, medicine and supplies. Remittances may be declining, but they will be more essential than ever. Most poor countries aren’t equipped to enforce lockdowns. In Bangladesh, 80% of the population consists of day laborers, who don’t eat if they don’t get paid that day to pull a rickshaw or sew a garment. Disruptions to remittances and jobs means famine is going to pervade many developing countries.

Digital services must be allowed to play a greater role. Access to these tools will save lives. Unfortunately, most digital services require a bank account. Authorities are obsessed with spotting money laundering, and the small money transfers typically associated with migrants also happen to raise red flags across banks’ compliance departments.

This is unfair even in good times, for it marginalises migrants in the ghetto of cash-only economics. Now it is downright dangerous. The goal of regulating money transfer must change from fighting money laundering to supporting financial inclusion, with digital solutions best able to provide secure identity verification remotely.

Migrant workers will do everything they possibly can to keep sending money back home. Volumes on digital remittance channels spiked in February and March as people scrambled to send back whatever they’ve saved. But they cannot remit what they do not have, and the Great Lockdown has already rendered millions of these people idle, yet unable to travel home.

Singapore’s authorities have changed tack and are now promising better care for low-wage migrants. The bar is low in other migrant-dependent regions, such as the Gulf nations, but the same arguments apply to Western countries. All rich countries have vested interests who directly profit off the toil of migrant workers, and consumers who are happy to not be troubled so long as services are cheap.

Covid-19 presents us with a choice: continue to treat migrants in a way that harms their livelihoods and health, or give them the rights they deserve. This starts with allowing foreign workers to participate in the economy on fair terms.

Mark Roden is chief executive officer of Ding.com.

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The price for turning a blind eye to migrant workers