Labour Migration and Exclusive State Amidst the Global Pandemic of COVID-19

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



The vulnerability of migrant workers has long been documented. Despite protection measures imposed by countries of origin, most of them end up among the least protected in their host countries. This is especially true for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Their vulnerability has become more pronounced because of the outbreak of the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). As the COVID-19 outbreak ballooned into a pandemic, host states have been forced to implement urgent and aggressive actions to combat its spread and severity, primarily to protect its citizens. Hence, as quarantine measures, border closures, lockdowns, and restrictions on movement have been imposed by sovereign nations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, migrant workers who have remained in these host states find themselves at the receiving end of the host states’ shifting responses on how to deal with migrant workers amidst the pandemic. Realising that the spread of COVID-19 continues among the population regardless of an individual’s citizenship or nationality, these sovereign states have grappled with the reality that they cannot protect their citizens without equally protecting migrant workers within their borders. For many, this is a substantial shift, as these migrant workers have traditionally been given less economic and social security by host states, despite their vital economic contributions. This paper examines the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as far as their treatment and protection of migrant workers are concerned; how their policies have been effectively reshaped by the spread of the deadly virus, the underlying and facilitating factors which resulted in recalibrated measures and policy shifts with migrant workers, and how the pandemic has challenged traditional health responses and strategies, which have generally been framed around the protection primarily, if not exclusively, of a state’s own citizens.