Migration systems in transition: is changing regulation during the pandemic increasing risks for migrants?

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Professor Chris Forde is professor of Employment Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change. His research interests look at the changing nature of work, and the implications of these changes for workers. Dr Zyama Ciupijus is a lecturer in HRM and Employment Relations, with research interests primarily centred around international labour migration. Dr Jiachen Shi is a lecturer in Management Consulting and HRM. Her research focuses on strategic human resource management and regulations of employment, rhetorics and realities of HRM.

Airport lounge

The use of the word ‘unprecedented’ has become seemingly compulsory to describe the period of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, but when looking at changes in patterns of global mobility and migration flows over the last two years it seems an entirely appropriate term to use.

From February 2020, countries across the globe implemented coronavirus-related restrictions and border shutdowns. Over the course of the first year of the pandemic, it was estimated that more than 100,000 COVID-related international and internal travel restrictions were put in place by countries, territories, or areas.

Almost without exception, specific restrictions were imposed on migration for work purposes. Supranational and national systems of migration regulation were already varied, and have certainly become even more diverse during the pandemic, with ‘re-regulation’ occurring in many different contexts. The consequences of this remain largely underexplored.

The primary focus in policy and popular debate during the pandemic has been narrowly on employer demands or ‘needs’ for migrant workers. As some have noted, the regulation of migration and immigration is often characterised as a ‘neutral tap’, turned on and off to allow the necessary number of workers. Yet, in reality, immigration controls ‘actively shape employment relationships and rights, creating a labour force with often quite specific constraints that differentiate them from citizens’ (Anderson et al., 2021: 4).

For many migrants, restrictions on movement and changing entitlements to access labour markets, social protections and basic rights over the pandemic may have worsened already precarious lives.  

In our project, Covid 19 and Migration Systems in Transition, funded by the World Universities Network, we have been exploring how migration regulation has changed during the pandemic, and the consequences for migrants. With colleagues at the University of Leeds, Renmin University of China and the University of Western Australia, we have been considering evolving migration systems in the quite different contexts of the UK, China, and Australia, drawing on interviews, survey data, and analysis newspaper and other documentary sources. We have been exploring what effect COVID-19 has had upon already changing migration systems – has it reinforced existing regulation, or resulted in countries adapting and changing their approaches?

The systems of migration regulation in each of the three countries were already experiencing considerable change and pressures prior to COVID-19, but in quite different ways. In the UK, following Brexit, a new points-based work-visa system was being planned and implemented. In Australia, temporary migrant worker schemes established by government had grown over the last decade, creating concerns over the creation of a precarious labour force deprived of citizenship rights. In China, the long-established hukou system of internal migration had been loosened over recent years especially for Tier 3 and Tier 2 cities allowing greater social inclusion of internal migrants.

Our research over the pandemic has shown how COVID-19 has reinforced many of the risks, uncertainties and precarities faced by migrants, with evolving systems of migration often worsening these risks.

In China, many social assistance schemes prior to COVID were only available to those with local household registration (hukou), meaning many millions of migrant workers fell outside of protection. Some emergency assistance packages during COVID-19 in China did seek to explicitly focus on migrants, yet those in informal employment remained largely uncovered. Our survey of workers in Wuhan revealed big decreases in income and high levels of unemployment for migrant workers, particularly rural to urban migrants, who faced considerable socio-economic risks.

In Australia, changes to the system of migration were introduced rapidly at the start of the pandemic, with a nationalistic discourse within parts of the government and the media emphasising that Australian workers should have a “first go at jobs”.  

Those on temporary working visas in Australia were specifically excluded from being recipients of stimulus payments and benefits, with the Minister for Immigration infamously quoted in April 2020 as saying that “(i)f you [temporary labour migrants] cannot support yourself over the next six months, then you should consider leaving the country”.  

In the UK, measures put in place during COVID-19, such as the furlough scheme, were not equally accessible to all. Migrant workers were much more likely to be found in informal employment, and not able to access furloughing through their employer.

Furthermore, we found that migrants faced challenges and risks from the implementation of the EU Settlement scheme, with its ‘cliff edge’ registration date of June 2021 for migrants looking to protect their residence and rights to work in the UK. Risks associated with this process were pushed down to the individual. Our research found that English language and digital skills provided considerable barriers, particularly for vulnerable groups including older EU residents, children, physically or mentally disabled individuals, women in relationships involving domestic abuse or Roma people. The inability to access support in person during the pandemic compounded risks and vulnerabilities for these groups.

We also found that, in the face of changing systems of migration regulation and immigration control, migrant support groups were increasingly important, sometimes as formal organisations, other times as more informal groups. They had stepped in in the absence of government support, and were a key means of information, advice, advocacy, and support.

Indeed, there appeared to be a widespread expectation that such support groups would step in to support migrants, even though funding for this appeared to be minimal. This exposes the effects of the longer-term retrenchment of the public sector in countries like the UK and Australia and also accentuates the overall low levels of support in place for migrants navigating complex and changing systems of migration regulation.

Whilst the nature of migration regulation is quite different in the three countries we have researched, there are some common vulnerabilities and risks for migrants because of complex and rapidly changing migration systems.

Policymakers need to recognise that regulations and protections that focus solely on ‘regular’, ‘formal’ employment relations will not address the risks and vulnerabilities faced by many migrant workers in more informal and precarious work arrangements. The important work of migrant groups and ‘grassroots’ organisations in supporting migrants also needs to be recognised in policymaking around migration. Whilst these have played a key role in supporting migrants, they have often operated with minimal and declining financial support from the State during the pandemic.

Project team: Professor Chris Forde (Leeds University Business School), Dr Zinovijus Ciupijus (Leeds University Business School), Dr Jiachen Shi (Leeds University Business School), Dr Li Sun (School of Sociology and Social Policy), Dr Rosa Mas Giralt (Lifelong Learning Centre), Dr Donella Casperz (University of Western Australia, Perth), Dr Renata Casato (University of Western Australia, Perth), Professor Yang Li (Renmin University, China), Guo Yu (Renmin University, China).

This project is funded by the World Universities Network, under their ‘Addressing research needs as part of the COVID-19 Pandemic’, as part of the  ‘Understanding Cultures’ Global Challenge.

Related content

Contact us

If you would like to get in touch regarding any of these blog entries, or are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact:

Email: research.lubs@leeds.ac.uk
Phone: +44 (0)113 343 8754

Click here to view our privacy statement. You can repost this blog article, following the terms listed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.