Uncertain Futures: Transnational Contract Migration in the Times of COVID-19

Migrant farm workers hoeing a field in British Columbia

The concept of ‘risk’ as a resource for understanding contemporary human experiences of incertitude, especially in the arena of work and employment has become widespread in recent decades. While these discussions about the future of work have been driven largely by the disintegration of stable employment relations in the global North—often in the face of rapid advances in automation, machine

reading and robotics—the idea of ‘risk’ also resonates with the experiences of workers in informal economies across the global South, and transnational contract migrants or guest-workers seeking better livelihoods in affluent economies. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, the challenges facing this category of migrant labour seems to have intensified. As the ILO’s Concept Note for its 2020 Global Summit highlights, migrant workers who “not only work, but also live in unprotected conditions” resulting in grievous consequences for their health and wellbeing. Numerous reports in the media from across the world have documented the specific vulnerabilities of transnational contract migrants amidst the ongoing pandemic. Such stories further clarify not only the devastating impact of the pandemic, but also the extreme inequality and exploitation at the heart of temporary and contractual transnational work or guest-work, designed to deny workers the right to settle in host countries.

Uncertain Futures draws on this rich archive of media reports and emergent academic and policy analyses on temporary migrant workers worldwide, as well as the author’s own long-standing research among Bangladeshi guest workers to reflect on the uncertain future of transnational contract work. It points out that while contract migrant workers are often the first to lose work in moments of crisis, their crucial role in the functioning of affluent, labour-deficient economies also earns them the designation of “essential workers”. These contradictory images of guest workers—their extreme vulnerability, on the one hand, and their essential-ness, on the other--open up a possibility to address some of the structural inequalities and exploitations that seem to define this form of work-mobility arrangement. Following the calls made by some advocacy groups to develop a rights regime that offers migrant workers the same protections and conditions of work afforded to citizens, the paper argues for a restructuring of transnational contract work to make it more equitable and just for all workers.

Zoom link: https://utoronto.zoom.us/j/84559372561

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