For example, Japan created a new ‘Care Work Visa’ (kaigoryugaki) in 2017 to provide access to migrants who had secured employment in the care sector in Japan; Singapore brings in migrant long-term care workers through their ‘Foreign Maid Scheme’ and ‘S-Pass’; and Taiwan introduced their ‘Foreign Live-in Caregiver Program’ in 1992. The increasing prevalence of such pathways, and the general shortage of health workers globally, has led many in the international community to explore how such migration could be regulated and improved. Such discussions started at the same time as COVID-19 rocked the region.
The impact of COVID-19
While the introduction of border restrictions and lockdowns was largely able to curb the spread of the virus within Asia, the pandemic still had a range of negative impacts on migrant care workers throughout the region.
Lockdowns prevented many migrant long-term care workers from physically sending money home, despite money transfer organizations being designated as essential services. Despite this, remittances throughout the region largely remained strong. Many countries curtailed freedom of movement, forcing long-term care workers to work on their rest day, lest they bring COVID-19 into the house.
Migrant long-term care workers were frequently worried about accessing health care in their country of destination, or were even barred from doing so. Especially in the early days of COVID-19, access to information, testing, and treatment was impeded for migrants.
During the pandemic, many migrants abroad sought to return to their countries of origin due to a fear of COVID-19, job losses or expected job losses, and the expiration of work permits. While some countries—such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia—supported their overseas workers with repatriation flights and other forms of assistance, others did not.
On a more positive note, several countries, wary of the impact of border restrictions and changing employer demand on the rights of their migrant workers, made steps to shift their employment conditions. South Korea granted three-month extensions to those with expiring visas; Singapore extended expired work visas for two months; and Taiwan barred entry to new migrant care workers but implemented successive six-month extensions for existing workers.
Others focused on the rights of migrant workers, especially migrant domestic workers, to change employers. Some countries explored the opposite, enacting regularization, and legalization campaigns, recognizing the impact that undocumented workers could have on labor shortages during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of migrant workers to long-term care systems throughout Asia. If countries in the region, particularly countries of destination, are to reduce their unmet need for care, expanding immigration for long-term care in an ethical, sustainable, and rights-respecting way will be required.
These efforts should be undertaken alongside reforms to the long-term care system itself, focusing on how the system is financed, structured, and resourced. Finally, the pandemic has shown us how migrant care workers should be supported, both during and beyond crises, lessons that must be kept in mind throughout any reform efforts.
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