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South Asian migrant workers lost $25 million in wage theft during the pandemic

Outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad
Reuters/Amit Dave
Still hanging.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated

It’s an open secret that the covid-19 pandemic has robbed people of livelihoods. A new report now quantifies some of that loss in south Asia: $25 million (Rs187 million).

Between June 2020 and December 2021, more than 3,106 migrant workers from five countries—India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines—have been deprived of wages amounting to $25.5 million, the report on wage theft from south Asian workers in middle-eastern nations reveals.

Wage theft pertains to pay- and benefit-related violations committed by employers and recruiting agencies.

The research, which combines documentation proof—salary slips, company letters etc—collected via a dedicated website for the Justice for Wage Theft (JWT) campaign with separate research by the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), estimates that one worker would have lost wages at a minimum average of $7,217 for the period of 14 months.

Wage theft is highest in India

The total amount of wages and dues stolen from a little over 2,000 workers in the five countries was $19.2 million, JWT’s data show.

In India, 745 workers lost out of dues upwards of $16.3 million.

India’s large average could be explained by the large number of group cases involving long-term wage theft patterns, MFA notes.

Across the region, construction was the most notorious sector for not giving workers their dues.

To remedy this problem, states must hold private-sector employers accountable for wage theft, arbitrary dismissal, and coercive or retaliatory tactics, the MFA report states.

Poor fixes for migrant worker wage theft in India

MFA’s numbers uncover only a fraction of the problem. Scores of other cases “go unreported and are invisible due to lack of documentation,” William Gois, the regional coordinator of MFA, says.

The lack of regulation and grievance redressal makes matters worse. A separate August 2021 report on wage theft found India’s response to the crisis tepid. The number of unresolved labour dispute cases in 2019 and 2020 alone was 6,988. (This figure consists of cases only from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, except the UAE.)

“The repatriation procedures have been undertaken hastily by countries of both origin and destination, without any proper redress mechanism, since courts and other labour dispute mechanisms have also been closed during the period of the lockdown,” the JWT movement’s website states. “Therefore, these violations will pile up and either not be addressed or overburden the existing dispute resolution mechanisms.”

Take the example of Kerala, which witnessed more than 500,000 workers returning from abroad after losing jobs during the pandemic. The government’s Non-Resident Keralites Affairs department set up a toll-free number and provided complaint forms to report wage theft cases. But 600 complaints and escalations later, there was little relief.

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government has been gathering data on returnee migrants to reintegrate them into the domestic labour market or help them immigrate again, but it’s often too little too late.

“Return and reintegration efforts have always been an afterthought and governments seldom earmarked resources for the same,” the MFA report states. “Consequently, migrants, that were depended upon as contributors to their economy and social milieu, returned empty-handed.”

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