Construction Delays, Dirty Pavements as Asian Cities Struggle Without Migrant Workers

By Reuters 14 May 2020

BANGKOK—Stalled construction. Dirty pavements. Fewer cooks and drivers.

With millions of migrant laborers from Dubai to Singapore quarantined or having returned to their homes because of coronavirus lockdowns, cities are facing shortages of essential workers as they begin to ease restrictions.

More than 4.2 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and at least 290,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

In India, strict lockdowns in cities led to an exodus of millions of migrant workers to the countryside, while in Singapore and the Gulf nations, authorities are trying to contain infection clusters among foreign workers.

“We will see a major labor shortage in large Indian cities for several months, especially in construction, logistics, transport and manufacturing,” said Chinmay Tumbe, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

“Workers will stay away for longer than usual, and probably only return when wages spike because of the labor shortage,” said Tumbe, who studies migration in the country.

An estimated 120 million migrant workers keep Indian cities running, and some states are already offering higher wages to persuade them to stay back, while others tried to cancel trains that were to take them to their homes.

In Singapore, where more than three-quarters of total cases have been linked to crowded dormitories that house more than 300,000 foreign workers, tens of thousands of laborers have been quarantined amid criticism of the squalid accommodations.

With Singapore’s economy fueled by cheap foreign labor, the government’s handling of the situation will determine how migrant workers view the city-state, said Alex Au, vice president of the nonprofit Transient Workers Count Too.

“Already, we are seeing construction delays and shortages of sanitation workers; pavements have not been swept in weeks,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If large numbers of workers are sent home because of a recession, there will be loss of faith, and they would see Singapore as a less desirable place to come to. But they don’t have much better options in their home countries,” he said.

This is also the case with the Gulf countries, which draw millions of migrant workers largely from South Asia.

Higher wages than their home countries and less restrictive immigration policies than Western nations mean that Gulf nations will continue to attract migrant workers, said Froilan Malit Jr., a Gulf migration specialist at Cambridge University.

“With fewer migrant workers or delays in their return to jobs, some industries will struggle, given their dependence on migrant labor—construction, hospitality, domestic work, and service sectors like cleaning, security,” he said.

“In the long run, migrants will likely return,” he added.

Like Singapore, Gulf nations are likely to improve migrant accommodations, which are under close scrutiny now, Malit said.

While the Indian government has announced handouts, cities must address affordable rental housing for migrants, higher wages and portability of welfare benefits across states, said Tumbe.

“Cities ought to be more welcoming of migrants. This crisis should hopefully usher in a new social contract between cities and migrants,” he said.

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