The pandemic has been a cruel blow for thousands of migrant workers in South Asia who are out of work or unable to return to their jobs abroad.

Countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal rely heavily on migrant workers, who send billions of dollars home each year. But over the past year, many have lost their jobs and been forced to return to their native countries. Others still have jobs or have found new ones, but are struggling to make travel arrangements to take up the posts. The lack of Covid-19 vaccines has compounded the problem, with many countries requiring migrant workers to be inoculated to avoid quarantine or sometimes to enter at all.

Ajay Sodari, a migrant worker in Kathmandu, Nepal, who needs to be vaccinated before he can start his job in South Korea, said, “I spent four years studying the Korean language, to get selected as a qualified worker in language tests and sign a labor agreement with the company.” He said that he had spent thousands of dollars to meet the employment requirements but that the pandemic had “shattered my dream.”

The lack of vaccines has been most acute in Bangladesh and Nepal, both of which planned to source most of their doses from neighboring India until New Delhi stopped vaccine exports this spring to prioritize its own citizens. In Bangladesh and Nepal, only about 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.

In Nepal, where inward remittances account for a quarter of gross domestic product, migrant workers were not among the priority groups in initial phases of the vaccination campaign, which favored older adults, frontline health workers, security personnel and government officials. As many as 35,000 migrant workers are stuck in Nepal despite obtaining final work permit approval from the country’s government, according to the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies. The group says that most countries have stopped recruiting workers from Nepal because they are not vaccinated.

In Bangladesh, there are at least 90,000 migrant workers waiting to get vaccinated before they can start their jobs abroad, said Shahidul Alam, director general at the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, a government agency. Mr. Alam said that Bangladesh was stepping up its vaccination efforts among migrant workers, including with the introduction of an app.

“In the last seven days, at least 45,000 workers registered in the app, and the vaccination for them is already started,” he said on Thursday.

The workers’ situation is complicated by the fact that their destination countries sometimes require certain vaccines. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait, two of the most common destinations for Bangladeshi migrant workers, recognize the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, which Bangladesh now largely relies upon for mass inoculation.

To help the stranded workers, the government in Bangladesh is giving them the Pfizer vaccine at seven health facilities in Dhaka, the capital, using some of the 106,000 doses received through the Covax global vaccine-sharing program.

FISHING CREEK, Md. (AP) — For thousands of miles and over two days in April, 59 workers from Mexico traveled together on a bus — despite the pandemic — to their legal, seasonal jobs as crabmeat pickers and seafood processors in Maryland’s rural islands.

Lindy’s Seafood Inc., the wholesale crab and oyster company in Maryland that hired the workers, paid for their cross-country trip. The company put them to work the day after they arrived without quarantining or waiting for COVID-19 test results. Those safeguards are not required under state or federal law.

Within a week, workers were informed that several had tested positive for the disease.

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This story was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The Howard Center is an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer, Roy W. Howard.

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Migrant seafood-processing workers, who are legally hired and transported to the U.S. each season through the federal H-2B visa program, face heightened risks of catching COVID-19.

They often travel long distances to their jobs, where they live in communal housing. Classified as essential workers, they are permitted to continue working even if they come in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which runs the H-2B program, did not establish COVID-safety rules for the workers’ cross-country bus travel. Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina — states with flourishing seafood industries that rely on H-2B seafood workers — also failed to provide H-2B workers with critical protections in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Between October 2019 and September 2020, more than 12,000 H-2B workers were authorized to work at seafood companies across the U.S, including 2,232 at 41 companies across these states, according to an analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Of the three states, only Virginia provided statewide totals for COVID-19 cases at seafood facilities – 106 cases in three outbreaks – and none of the state health agencies disclose outbreak locations.

The Howard Center found COVID-19 outbreaks at seafood plants in all three states through interviews with migrant workers, advocacy groups and a church.

COVID-19 safety issues in the plants rarely show up in complaints to federal and state agencies in charge of enforcing workplace protections.

Since January 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration received 63,455 workplace complaints related to COVID-19 across the U.S. Of those complaints, 32 were against seafood-processing companies, which have more H-2B workers than any other industry except landscaping, a Howard Center analysis found.

“If they complain, they could be fired in retaliation and lose their lawful status in the U.S.,” said Clermont Ripley, an attorney for the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center.

In the absence of government standards and enforcement, decisions on how to keep workers safe from COVID-19 are largely left up to their employers.

“If a worker doesn’t feel safe, they obviously don’t have to come,” said Lydia

Topline

Hong Kong and Singapore have reportedly delayed plans to announce a quarantine-free travel bubble between the two cities after a cluster of Covid-19 cases was detected among migrant workers in Singapore, highlighting the challenges posed by such arrangements as the pandemic still persists in several parts of the world.

Key Facts

According to Bloomberg, the announcement of an air-travel bubble between the two Asian financial hubs was expected on Thursday but was cancelled by Singapore with no new date being set.

Neither side has commented on the arrangement and what led to the cancellation but a flare up of Covid-19 cases among Singapore’s migrant worker community this week is seen as the likely reason, the report suggests.

While neither city has been severely hit by the virus—with Hong Kong reporting a total of 209 deaths from Covid-19 and Singapore reporting only 30 deaths—any small outbreak raises alarms due to dense populations.

Key Background

Travel bubbles, which allow for quarantine free journeys between neighbouring nations, have presented somewhat of a lifeline for families, businesses and airlines during the pandemic. But they don’t always go to plan. This is the second time plans for a travel bubble between the two financial hubs have been postponed. The bubble was originally scheduled to start in November last year but that plan had to be scrapped after a flare up of cases in Hong Kong. The start date was then pushed to May, officials had said at the time, but the latest postponement leaves that timeframe uncertain. Strict pandemic protocols have dissuaded people in both cities from travelling outside and this has severely impacted the business of the two flag carriers—Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific. Earlier this week, Singapore said it would halve the required quarantine period for travellers from Hong Kong to just seven days and the quarantine could be done at their private residence instead of a government facility. Hong Kong also eased restrictions on visitors from Singapore—allowing unvaccinated travellers to quarantine for 14 days at a designated hotel followed by seven days of “self-monitoring”. Previously travellers were required to quarantine for  21 days at a hotel.

Tangent

On Monday, Australia and New Zealand opened a travel bubble that would allow their residents to travel between the two countries without needing to quarantine. While announcing the move, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed to the hard work the two countries had put in to effectively eliminate local transmission of the coronavirus which allowed for such a bubble. On Tuesday, however, a worker at Auckland International Airport tested positive for Covid-19, despite being fully vaccinated, threatening to set back the arrangement. Back in May last year, a group of European nations—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—had instituted a travel bubble arrangement. But it fell apart in September after Latvia mandated  a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving from Estonia following