Decent Rural Employment

Questions and Answers on Migration #2 (COVID-19)


The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a spotlight on the vital role migrant workers play in our food system. Without them, crops are not planted on time or are left to rot in the fields with no one to pick them. As outbreaks occur on farms and throughout the food system, the pandemic has also highlighted the decent work deficits in the sector. FAO is working both to keep food systems alive and to support vulnerable populations, including migrants. Responses are also looking beyond the immediate needs, aiming for longer-term improvements in the sector.

FAO Technical Focal Point on Migration, Jacqueline Demeranville, answers some commonly asked questions.

How are lockdowns, travel bans and other mobility restrictions affecting agri-food systems?

Mobility restrictions are resulting in labour shortages in the agricultural sector. Agriculture is seasonal and often has peaks in labour demand at specific moments in the agricultural calendar, for instance in planting and harvesting. Usually, this demand is met by seasonal agricultural workers, often migrants coming from abroad or other areas of the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, measures blocking travel have been put in place to slow the spread of the virus. This has made it difficult, or impossible, for some seasonal workers to reach their destination and has resulted in labour shortages on farms, as well as loss of income for workers and producers.

Lockdowns have also made it difficult for some producers to get their harvest to market, resulting both in food loss and loss of income.   

What measures are governments taking to ensure food supply?

To avoid, or deal with, labour shortages, a number of governments have made exemptions for agri-food system workers, allowing them to travel to meet labour demand. For foreign workers already in the territory, countries have taken a variety of measures, such as automatically extending visas, allowing migrants without work permits to work in the agricultural sector, or temporarily granting full citizenship rights to all migrants and asylum seekers currently in the country. FAO is continually updating a database on measures being taken to keep food and agricultural systems alive.

In addition to making sure migrants can move and work in the agri-food sector, we also need to protect their health and the health of host communities, while ensuring protection of their labour rights and human rights more broadly.

How are migrant workers in agrifood system at risk during the pandemic?

Workers in agriculture, in food processing and in the food system more broadly, are serving on the frontlines. For them, there is no option to work from home. In addition to exposure at the workplace, they often live on-site in crowded living conditions, sometimes without adequate access to water and sanitation, or are transported to work in crowded vehicles. We’ve already seen coronavirus outbreaks on farms and in meat and seafood processing facilities.

Migrants in the sector face additional layers of vulnerability, as they often don’t have access to healthcare and other social services or information on the virus and prevention measures in a language they understand. For those with irregular status, they may be afraid to get tested or to not show up for work or seek healthcare if they fall sick for fear of loss of income or deportation. This vulnerability also makes it less likely they will speak up when coronavirus protection measures aren’t followed.  

What can be done to protect migrant workers and host communities?

There are a number of measures that should be taken to protect both migrant workers and host communities. Information on prevention and protection measures should be provided to migrants in their native language. Physical distancing measures should be put in place at the workplace – whether this is a farm or fish processing facility, as well as in housing and transportation arrangements. For instance, dividing workers into smaller groups that work and live together and maintain physical distance from other groups. Access to clean water and soap should be provided, together with providing and ensuring the use of protective gear.  

What other impacts is COVID-19 having on migration and food security?

With the lockdowns, and loss of jobs in cities, we’ve seen large-scale reverse migration to rural areas in a number of countries. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for rural areas and food security. Returning migrants may bring back knowledge and skills that can be used to modernize agriculture and revitalize rural economies. However, it is not clear how long returnees will stay. Many may choose to migrate again as soon as the possibility arises. In the meantime, large influxes of returnees can put pressure on food availability and natural resources. There are also reports of returnees facing discrimination, as residents fear that returning migrants will bring the coronavirus back with them to rural areas.

Another major impact of COVID-19 measures on food security is through a substantial decrease in remittances, the money that migrants send back home. Usually, most of this money is spent on food and meeting other basic needs of the family. A smaller percentage is also invested, including in agriculture-related activities. Remittances make up a substantial part of the GDP of some countries and outstrip official development aid by far. The World Bank estimates that remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries will drop by around 20 percent to USD 445 billion in 2020, down from USD 554 billion in 2019. The loss of remittances poses a huge risk to the food and nutrition security of rural populations worldwide.

Where can I find more information on this topic?

I would suggest you check out the FAO global policy brief  Migrant workers and the COVID-19 pandemic”. For sub-Saharan Africa, you can check out Migrant workers and remittances in the context of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa”. Additional, region-specific briefs will be coming soon for Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The Reflections from the listening sessions on Addressing the Vulnerabilities of Migrant Workers in Agriculture organized by FAO and the UN Network on Migration capture the experiences shared by representatives of migrant associations, agricultural migrants themselves, as well as trade unions from Europe, North America, Africa and the Near East regions.

You might also check out the recording of the COVID-19 Through the Migration Lens” webinar organized by FAO North America and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Global Food Security Project.

Information on FAO’s broader response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on our COVID-19 webpage.

For further information contact Jacqueline Demeranville at [email protected]