COVID-19 and the worsening precarity of temporary migrant workers from Nepal

Shivakoti, Richa | $32,860

Ontario Ryerson University 2021 SSHRC

The onset of the COVID‑19 pandemic has resulted in many migrant workers becoming particularly vulnerable to economic and social hardships. Temporary migrant workers are concentrated in industries that cannot readily adapt to remote working practices and are usually excluded from social safety nets, thus increasing their precarity. This vulnerability became dramatically visible during the global pandemic as temporary migrant workers were reported to be unemployed, unpaid, and at the mercy of their employers before having to return to their home countries. This proposed project examines the pressing issue of the impacts of COVID‑19 on the worsening precarity of temporary labour migrant workers. It uses the case of Nepal to study the consequences of the large-scale return and reintegration of migrant workers to their home countries. Nepal is the fifth-most remittance-dependent economy in the world as remittance flows aggregates at US$8.1 billion and accounts for 27.3 percent of Nepal’s GDP for 2019 (World Bank 2020). The global pandemic will have direct economic and social consequences for the country and its migrant workers and this research aims to study those impacts.

This research builds on a pilot research that the PI is currently developing (spring 2021) in Nepal. The 6-month pilot research explores the impact of COVID‑19 on returnee Nepali temporary migrant workers by interviewing 40 returnee migrant workers to understand the circumstances of their return and their reintegration back home. The IDG study will expand on this project by following 150 returnee migrant households from different destination countries with quarterly phone interviews over an 18-month period. This study will have a qualitative research design and will use phone surveys and semi-structured interviews to better understand a) the past migration pathways for the returnee migrants; b) the circumstances surrounding their return; and c) their future aspirations. It will also conduct 6 focus group discussions and 10 key informant interviews to explore reintegration issues in more depth.

This research project fits well in two of the SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future global challenges: Shifting Dynamics of Privilege and Marginalization, and Envisioning Governance Systems that Work. Brokerage-driven temporary labour migration schemes in Asia provide short-term work opportunities and remittances for many but labour migrants are usually excluded or only partially incorporated into labour laws and welfare support schemes of host countries. These features of temporariness conflate to place low-waged migrants in situations that are hyper-precarious (Yeoh 2020) as seen during this pandemic, which points to the need to re-envision governance systems that work for transnational circular migration. This project advances knowledge by producing new empirical evidence on the impact of the pandemic on migrant lives and by using the case of Nepal to offer a critique on migration governance that privileges regulated temporary migration without providing safeguards to address migrant vulnerability. It also advances theoretical analysis of migrant agency, resilience and the role of the migration industry during emergency return’. These theoretical advancements are important to develop a holistic understanding of the role of different stakeholders in the regulated temporary migration regime and will be of interest for scholars of migration, development and public policy studies; local civil society and international organizations. The project will provide innovative policy thinking on sustainable managed migration schemes that can inform the Global Compact for Migration (2018) and the Global Forum on Migration and Development annual consultations.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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