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The effects of COVI-19 interventions on undocumented migrant workers

Undocumented migration for employment is not a novel notion; and certainly not to Botswana.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that there are between 15 and 30 million people who are economically active in a country which is not their own are there in an irregular situation, “having entered the country clandestinely and/or being illegally employed.“ Undocumented migrant workers, are, as realised by the ILO, are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Although this is well known, the exact extent of the problem remains unknown, because of the nature of the situation, and specifically, its sensitivity.

Like many other countries, Botswana has a very vibrant community of undocumented migrant workers, comprised of nationals of various countries across the African region. Most undocumented migrants work in the informal sector, in order to keep themselves well nourished, and as economically independent as possible. The ILO has established a set of standard to ensure that migrant workers are accorded the enjoyment of basic protection, even when they are undocumented or are employed illicitly. This notwithstanding, a lot of informal sector workers have been affected, most direly by the COVID-19 interventions.

Many undocumented informal workers work in the caregiving industry in Botswana. While many are domestic workers and gardeners, some work as nannies, as babysitters, as badisa or farm labourers, and as security personnel. Others still, work in the textile industry as seamstresses and tailors. A lot of others work on a piece job basis, which is the most prominent and possibly the most lucrative. They do work for a day, and make a bit of money to get by. Although this is more unstable than other jobs, it is more lucrative because, like consultancy, you get paid, either by the hour or by the day. The price negotiations are also quite advanced, as there is no set salary.

These workers often wash clothes, sweep the yard, mow the lawn, clean the swimming pools or help with de-bushing land. Some others, join locals in the commercial sex work industry, offering sexual services, for pay. All of this work demands human contact and a level of interaction which cannot be achieved by remote working, yet. As a result of the lockdown, many undocumented migrant workers were left with insufficient money to pay for their lodging, or even to buy food. Their livelihoods were at a standstill for about two months. Their living and working conditions were rendered vulnerable.

Further to the above, with restrictions on travel, many migrant workers, even those in the formal sectors of employment, could not go back home, for the duration of the lockdown. This and provisions in many returning countries that upon return, persons should pay their own quarantining costs,

and should be under quarantine for a period of between 14 days and 21 days, made it near impossible to afford to return home, for many.

Of course, the specific type of support that is due to undocumented migrants is specific to geographical location, legal status, and type of migration, most undocumented migrants certainly need access to safety nets to assist them in attempts to comply with transmission control as well as the measures put in place for COVID-19 response. The safety net is also really vital to help cope with the impacts of the crisis.

When the country’s formal economy came to a standstill, so did the informal market, as referenced above. The effects of the lockdown on formal economies and industries, invariably has a trickle-down effect on the undocumented migrant workers. Many migrant workers lost their jobs as a result of their employers being affected by the lockdown.

The complexities of the migration status are manifold. The infamous mmaboipelego social workers who were tasked with identifying people in need of food relief and the COVID-19 food relief fund, were only issuing food relief to Batswana locals, and nobody else. The logic in this could likely be that there was not enough to go around, or for everyone in the country.

The effect of it, however, is that it left many people in a state of desperation and when people are desperate, there are bound to be wider reaching undesirable consequences. Further, this disproportionately puts the weight of intervention with civil society, who, as a result of the pandemic, were already spread out quite thinly in efforts to support governments where there are gaps. In addition, and perhaps most importantly the failure to provide relief to undocumented migrant workers leads to malnutrition related issues, poor nourishment, and even starvation.

A pandemic affects all people within a jurisdiction. A person’s migration status has no bearing on their humanity, as they remain human, whether they are local or from outside the country. The interventions and relief by government should, as a result, be as blind to the migration status of the people it should serve, as the President advises Batswana to be in their treatment of migrants from India.

 The same government committed to protecting all people in Botswana, as in the President’s speech, should adequately protect the undocumented migrant workers, who very heavily support the formal economies in the country. As complex an issue as it may seem, the fact remains that a human being is a human being, through and through. That is the only consideration that government should have, in offering support.

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