How the Pandemic Left Behind the Other ‘Essential’ Workers

Mar 17, 2021

Throughout the pandemic, many occupations have been deemed ‘essential’ to the economy, such as medical professionals, manufacturers, grocery stores, and other retailers. But what does it really mean to be deemed an essential worker, particularly when it comes to economic security? Assumption Economics and Global Studies Professor Smriti Rao, Ph.D., recently co-authored a study examining this question with regards to international migrant domestic workers (MDWs). 

Across the world, millions of migrant women serve as domestic workers, moving away from their families in the search for opportunities caring for others. According to Prof. Rao, MDWs are in the unusual position of working within people’s homes, sometimes as live-in nannies and helpers. “They were in the especially vulnerable position of potentially losing their livelihoods and their housing at the same time in the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns,” she said. 

The article, “Human Mobility, COVID-19, and Policy Responses: The Rights and Claims-Making of Migrant Domestic Workers,” makes the case that  MDWs are essential to care provision in high income countries, but in the aftermath of the pandemic they were not treated as such; many migrant laborers lost their jobs but were unable to leave to return to their home countries. The authors also share how states’ responses to COVID-19 intersected with immigration laws and systems of social welfare, and how the crisis affected the well-being of MDWs. 

Prof. Rao is from India, which she said sends millions of women and men abroad every year as migrant workers. “The India-Middle East/Gulf State corridor is believed to the second largest migration corridor in the world, with over 8 million Indians working in the Gulf States pre-COVID,” she said. “Many of these workers are ‘essential workers’ in construction, food service and domestic work, and when I first started reading the stories of workers trapped in these countries, being fired by their employers, with little ability to access health care or basic income, I thought this might be worth studying more carefully.”

Prof. Rao said the paper largely focuses on short-term effects of the pandemic upon MDWs, as the research was completed within the first six months of the pandemic. “We found that many migrant domestic workers lost their livelihoods and were stranded within host countries with no access to income or social support,” shared Prof. Rao. “The governments of their origin countries did not do very much to help them either – the Philippines was somewhat of an exception. Despite their work being considered ‘essential’ they were treated by both host and origin country governments as disposable.”

She noted that they did find that those countries that had pre-existing arrangements of strong social support were more likely to respond to the needs of these workers.

“While we did not study the long term effects, our sense of the emerging data is that many of the migrant domestic workers working in the Middle East, East Asia, and in Central and South America did eventually return home, to economies in distress,” she hypothesized. “It is unclear at this stage whether they will return to resume their old jobs, or whether this pattern of migration has been disrupted in a more permanent way.” 

Prof. Rao shared that she hopes the study helps readers to reflect on and understand what it really means when we call work essential, especially “if we are not willing to accord that work dignity and economic security.”

Prof. Rao has written several articles on the global effects of COVID-19, including India’s socialization of care work and why coronavirus has had a greater impact on women. She specializes in studying gender, worker, and migration with a special emphasis on India.