COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 exacerbates Vietnamese migrant workers’ plight in ASEAN

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Dinh Duc Nguyen
MA candidate in Globalisation: Politics, Conflicts, and Human Rights, School of Humanities, University of Brighton

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, strong measures employed by the Vietnamese government to contain the spread of the virus were recognized and praised by the international community (IMF, 2020). The media rarely mention the stories of the migrant workers overseas, who have suffered from the adverse effects of these measures. The suspension of the right to come back to their country has caused difficulties for Vietnamese workers.

Vietnamese Migrant Workers in ASEAN

Vietnam provides its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia at least 100,000 migrant labours (ILO, 2019),  where the majority of them are young people from remote areas who go abroad for low-skilled jobs. Thus, they are sensitive to any sudden change, which creates a financial burden.

On 10th August, the Facebook group “The support team for Vietnamese in Singapore” (Facebook, 2020) described the situation of some Vietnamese workers, who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. They have been arrested for selling tobacco illegally and now, they are detained in Tanah Merah – Changi prison. Since May, nearly 2,000 Vietnamese on the Facebook Group of Vietnamese in Singapore have been trying to contact Vietnamese authorities for help (Pho BolsaTV, 2020). Meanwhile, many are not only facing legal obstacles, such as the expiration of visa or working permission but also financial problems such as food and accommodations. Furthermore, some workers whose labour contract was completed could not return to the country due to the suspension of flights (Reuters, 2020). Those who have lost their jobs are also asking to be repatriated. They claimed that they did not receive any support despite several attempts to contact the Vietnam Embassy in Singapore. Consequently, they had to rely on themselves to survive.

About 50,000 Vietnamese labourers are working in Thailand. Utilising the ASEAN’s visa-free policy, Vietnamese can travel to Thailand to work as manual labourers or in the tourism industry (BBC, 2020). Yet, unknown numbers are working without the appropriate visa. When Vietnam and Thailand sealed off their borders, thousands have been trapped in Thailand (Diplomat, 2020).

Thai immigration Bureau annouced that it would extend visa amnesty for foreigners whose visas expired on March 26 to stay in Thailand until 26 September (Bangkok Post, 2020), (TTR Weekly, 2020). However, migrant workers, who overstayed their visas before the lockdown, were still arrested in June 2020 (ILO, 2020). This is a common worry among Vietnamese community in Thailand (BBC, 2020).  The situation became more severe when they lost their jobs due to the impact of the pandemic. Until September, hundreds have been stuck in Thailand for 5 to 6 months. (Nhan Dan, 2020). The policy on travel restriction of the Vietnamese government seems to forget about these migrant workers.

Lessons learned

According to international law, States have the right to restrict the right to free movement in light of an emergency, such as a public health disruption. (Article 12, ICCPR). Amid Covid-19, such measures have exacerbated the conditions of migrant workers, whose lives are already vulnerable even before the pandemic started. Firstly, they do not receive adequate support from the Vietnamese government when they are stuck abroad. Secondly, the sudden and robust decision on travel restriction led to a lack of preparation from the migrant workers. Both of these signals provide the incomprehensive containment measure where the migrant workers are in a disadvantaged position. Furthermore, this fact points out that ASEAN does not have a regional crisis management mechanism, which leads to the denial  of rights of migrant workers. Meanwhile, in ILO research, the statistic states that 32 per cent of currently employed respondents said they faced employment challenges or abuses related to COVID-19 (ILO, 2020).

Migrants from Vietnam, or from any country for that matter, should enjoy the full protection of rights by both destination and sending countries. Hence, we need to examine–why are the rights of migrant workers always considered last?

References:

  1. Bangkok Post (2020). Visas extended, relief measures approved. Retrieved from https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1904435/visas-extended-relief-measures-approved
  2. BBC News Vietnamese (2020) Virus corona: Ai có thể giúp những người Việt lao động khốn khổ tại Thái?. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/culture-social-52089978?fbclid=IwAR0QbcwaznZNQ9PVinbVTs9JyVuMeibGmOythXQ8ocsTFTbtndH3Z6X3aF4
  3. Facebook. 2020. The support team for Vietnamese in Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/hoinguoivietnamtaisingapore
  4. IMF (2020) Vietnam’s Success in Containing COVID-19 Offers Roadmap for Other Developing Countries. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/06/29/na062920-vietnams-success-in-containing-covid19-offers-roadmap-for-other-developing-countries
  5. ILO (2019) TRIANGLE in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/genericdocument/wcms_614384.pdf
  6. ILO (2020) COVID-19: Impact on migrant workers and country response in Thailand
  7. ILO Brief (2020) Experiences of ASEAN migrant workers during COVID-19: Rights at work, migration and quarantine during the pandemic, and re-migration plans
  8. Nhan Dan (2020). Three hundred thirty-eight citizens came back from Thailand. Retrieved from https://nhandan.com.vn/tin-tuc-the-gioi/dua-338-cong-dan-viet-nam-tu-thai-lan-ve-nuoc-615318/
  9. Pho BolsaTV (2020) LIVE: Những tiếng kêu cứu của người lao động Việt Nam từ Singapore, xin giúp đưa về nước tránh dịch. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFy4D5dcUGw
  10. Reuters (2020), Vietnam bars entry to all foreigners from Sunday. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-vietnam/vietnam-bars-entry-to-all-foreigners-from-sunday-idUSL4N2BE09O
  11. The Diplomat (2020). Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Southeast Asia’s Migrant Workers Fall Through the Cracks. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/amid-covid-19-crisis-southeast-asias-migrant-workers-fall-through-the-cracks/
  12. TTR Weekly (2020). Thailand extends visa amnesty. Retrieved from https://www.ttrweekly.com/site/2020/07/thailand-extends-visa-amnesty/

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