Migrant labour and the true price of remittances
Mark Roden is the founder and chief executive of Ding
The GCC is a part of the world that commands sheer amazement at the pace with which it has developed helped by the vast influx of migrant labour, who have been instrumental in building the economies of the GCC.
But over these past few months, thousands of these expats and migrant workers with means to pay for their flights have left the region, heading back home to weather the economic uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
With lockdown, the ability to work and earn a living was stunted and as cases soared during the peak of the pandemic, it was areas inhabited mainly by migrant workers that were most affected. In Dubai, entire areas were closed off to contain the virus, limiting opportunities for workers to earn a living.
And it is not only the workers in the GCC that have suffered the same fate, other wealthy countries like Singapore have seen a similar trend.
There is a lesson to be learned by wealthy countries trying to navigate between the devil of disease and the deep blue sea of economic collapse: we cannot succeed unless we include everyone in our society, especially the weakest links; all too often that means the foreign workers that are exploited to dig tunnels and erect the city’s skyscrapers, farm produce and cook meals, care for our elderly and staff our hospitals.
There is no member of our society as resilient as a migrant worker. These labourers are not a monolith, and conditions vary among countries, but as a group in 2019 they sent a combined $554 billion back to their families in their place of origin. That tidal flow – more than three times all development aid, according to the World Bank – is a crucial lifeline for a billion people in poor countries.
Lockdowns took a scythe to these payments, however: the World Bank estimates remittances will decline by 20 per cent this year. Most of these workers do not have a bank account. Some rely on global money transfer operators like Western Union, but most of them pass money, and other types of value such as paying bills and sending mobile airtime, back home through small shops or convenience stores like 7-11 that accept cash-in/cash-out arrangements with remittance businesses.
The changing definition of ‘essential’
In good times, these remitters charge high fees and getting the money to the family back home can be slow. Lockdowns in many wealthy countries prevented workers from reaching the shop. Many countries did allow “essential” businesses to continue, such as banks. But they generally did not consider remittance services as essential – another example of how our preference to look away from poor foreign labourers in our midst is worsening the impact of Covid-19.
In the absence of visiting stores, workers turned to digital solutions. Online services charge lower fees, and are certainly safer, in that users can avoid the handling of physical banknotes, which many fear to be tainted by the virus.
Mobile solutions to transfer money are proliferating. In addition to remittance transfers, workers can also use their phone to transfer cellular voice and data – which are also vital, allowing them to speak with their families, a blessing in an otherwise scary time. Mobile carriers and “superapps” based on e-commerce in Asia are also doing business by carrying more remittances and data over their networks.
Connecting to online shopping platforms can allow a migrant worker to purchase goods on behalf of their family back home and get them delivered. These digital capabilities highlight another example of the rich world’s reliance on its migrant workers: a remittance fintech in Hong Kong says a large portion of its March volumes were due to wealthy families asking their maids to use their mobile wallets to purchase surgical masks back home, in Manila or Jakarta, and have a family member post them back to the family in Hong Kong.
For the most part, the entwining of digital platforms is making it easier for migrants and their families to get access to food, medicine and supplies. Remittances may be declining, but they will be more essential than ever.
Most poor countries are not equipped to enforce further lockdowns. In Bangladesh, 80 per cent of the population consists of day labourers, who do not eat if they do not get paid that day to pull a rickshaw or sew a garment. Disruptions to remittances and jobs means famine is going to pervade many developing countries.
Digital services must be allowed to play a greater role. Access to these tools will save lives. Unfortunately, most digital services require a bank account. Authorities are obsessed with spotting money laundering, and the small money transfers typically associated with migrants also happen to raise red flags across banks’ compliance departments.
This is unfair even in good times, for it marginalises migrants in the ghetto of cash-only economics. Now it is downright dangerous. The goal of regulating money transfer must change from fighting money laundering to supporting financial inclusion, with digital solutions best able to provide secure identity verification remotely.
Migrant workers will do everything they possibly can to keep sending money back home. Volumes on digital remittance channels spiked in February and March as people scrambled to send back whatever they had saved. But they cannot remit what they do not have, and the Great Lockdown has already rendered millions of these people idle, struggling to travel home.
All rich countries have vested interests who directly profit off the toil of migrant workers, and consumers who are happy to not be troubled so long as services are cheap.
Covid-19 presents us with a choice: continue to treat migrants in a way that harms their livelihoods and health or give them the rights they deserve. This starts with allowing foreign workers to participate in the economy on fair terms.