The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the world for over a year, resulting in multifold crises with devasting economic and social impact. Perhaps the most dramatically affected areas aside from health have been employment and human mobility, with deep recessions resulting in mass unemployment and border restrictions inhibiting travel between and within countries. Migrant workers around the world have borne a disproportionate burden of these adverse consequences, with harsh containment measures, xenophobia, and a lack of social protection measures further exacerbating their oftentimes highly precarious immigration and work situations.
The transnational recruitment of migrant workers has long been marred by deception, exploitation and irregularities, and Covid-19 has substantially increased the immediate and long-term risks of abuse. Shrinking demand for placements, an oversupply of low-wage laborers without work, ongoing travel restrictions, and government efforts to nationalize workforces all contribute to increased competition and pressure for the finite number of overseas employment opportunities. This may push migrants, who are now in even more dire circumstances, to undertake riskier border crossings, take out larger loans to finance recruitment costs, and become further reliant on unscrupulous brokers as they try desperately to find whatever work is available.
Increased demand for manufacturing in specific sectors such as personal protective equipment, medical supplies and even toys (as parents attempt to entertain their children at home during lockdowns) can also lead to excessive working hours and harsh conditions as factories try to meet orders of unprecedented size. Simultaneously, many companies are slashing their budgets for compliance mechanisms, leaving workers in situations of exploitation unidentified and unreported.
Not only have many countries in Asia demonstrated noteworthy success in handling the coronavirus pandemic, but they have also been leading the way in designing innovative digital technologies to meet the varying needs of these temporary and circular migrant workers. As Asian economies are leading the global race to economic recovery, ensuring adequate oversight and protection of workers’ rights will remain a top policy priority for migration governance, particularly within popular source countries. Intraregional migration is a major driver of economic growth – and border closures notwithstanding, this trend will be a defining contributor to development outcomes for decades to come. Perhaps most evident of the forward thinking and intergovernmental cooperation in recognizing the transformational potential of technology was the 2018 ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour hosted in Singapore under the theme of “digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers”.
Increasingly reliant on information and communication technologies for every step of their recruitment and employment journeys, migrant workers utilize a wide range of digital tools and platforms to seek information, access services and keep in touch with loved ones. These solutions span a wide breadth of functionalities and address core processes associated with overseas employment such as information provision, remittances, skills recognition, job matching, and access to justice. New technologies and digitized processes have been rolled out in direct response to immediate Covid-19-related needs and more broadly, the pandemic is accelerating digital transformations across the full breadth of migration-related stakeholders.
Prospective migrants are subject to extortionate fees, information asymmetries, and fraudulent practices that are systematically enabled by the multiple and opaque layers that lie between a jobseeker and a company looking to hire. One way technology has been used to promote fair recruitment is by eliminating the need for brokers or middlemen through direct job-matching platforms. We can see this approach being replicated across different low-skilled sectors like construction and domestic work in a number of different Asian countries with bespoke platforms such as BongPheak in Cambodia, Sama in Singapore, Pink Collar in Malaysia, and HelperChoice in Hong Kong. By centralizing verified job listings and providing the enabling technical capacity for both workers and employers, these sites can greatly enhance transparency and labor-market efficiency.