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Migrant workers and Covid-19

Updated: Apr 14

An IPPR report released this week examining the impact of the coronavirus on migrant workers highlighted the fact that they are more likely to be in more precarious employment arrangements (such as zero hour contracts), and to live in rented, overcrowded accommodation. Our research has certainly shown this.


In this blog series, we have previously discussed the working conditions of migrant workers on farms, living in overcrowded disused holiday rental caravans.

For these workers their accommodation is linked to their employment, such as daffodil picking. For agriculture workers in a crowded caravan of six and living in close quarters with another 40-50 occupied caravans with shared laundry facilities, self-isolating and social distancing will prove difficult. Not to mention the potential loss in earnings and the difficulty in accessing benefits.


In towns and cities, the story is the same but different. The same, because migrant workers are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and houses of multiple occupation; different because it is not caravans but houses.


In our research, we found communities we spoke to largely lived in privately rented accommodation or more informal arrangements, such as cash-for-rent payments. Almost all said they would not rent through an official letting agency due to the cost, as well as the paperwork needed. Most renting was done informally through word of mouth, many without formal letting or tenancy agreements being in place.


This means that these tenants are in a more vulnerable position should they find their work affected, and they are unable to pay rent during this corona crisis.

Immigration support services are already reporting that clients are worried about being able to pay their rent, now that they needed to self-isolate.


Client is asking if she still has to pay her rent during the lockdown. She said she isn’t working at the moment and self-isolating for her and her children’s safety and she cannot afford to pay (Latvian national).


Some services have received reports of employers refusing staff the right to self-isolate. One worker was refused permission to self-isolate despite a history of respiratory problems. One advisor told us:


My client today works at a food factory and has some health issues. She had pneumonia, was hospitalised, and is susceptible to respiratory infections. She went to the factory nurse for advice regarding this as she thinks she is at risk, and should be at home but was told by the management that she needs a letter from her GP or hospital stating that she belongs to the ‘at risk group’ and should stay at home. Otherwise, she thinks she risks getting into trouble for unauthorised absence from work and loss of income. So, she is still going to work at this time and needs help to contact her GP. (25.03.2020-Portuguese national).

The services we are working with tell us that this incident is not one-off.


There are also growing concerns from front-line advisers that some vulnerable clients they work with are not on the ‘at-risk’ list of 1.5 million people announced by the government, but they should be.


Organisations we spoke to are making individual phone calls to clients they know should be on that list to ensure they are shielding themselves by staying inside for 12 weeks. But many more will not be known to services undertaking this extra work. In the meantime, vulnerable people continue to go to work or fear losing their jobs.


However, this week also saw local authorities move very quickly to support vulnerable homeless clients with no recourse to public funds placed in emergency accommodation.

One service in Norfolk was able to support five EU nationals previously known to be staying in a squat (pictured below) into emergency accommodation through the government’s recent £3.2million funding made available to local councils to support rough sleepers into accommodation during the pandemic.


However, these individuals will be unable to apply for Universal Credit (UC) or any welfare support in this time as they will not pass the ‘habitual residency test’. EU migrants need to prove they have a ‘right to reside’ in the UK in order to claim welfare benefits such as UC.

To do this, they need to prove they have previously been working, self-employed, self-sufficient or studying in the UK (the previous two with comprehensive sickness insurance), have retained their worker status; or that they are the family member of someone who is habitually resident.


This group of homeless men will not meet the threshold for this test, but for now in this time of crisis they are in safe emergency accommodation, supported with food parcels.


One organisation in Norfolk, in just the first week of public lockdown, has received calls from clients who were unable to access their required medicine, obtain food vouchers to access food banks, and pay their rent.


Services have needed to completely transform the way they are working with vulnerable client groups to ensure those on the margins are able to access support during this crisis. For the most vulnerable clients, survival was already a balancing act:


I asked if he has enough food. He said for today (Tuesday) he is ok and has got enough to wait until the free community hot meal on Thursday. His UC is in payment, but it pays mainly his rent and little else. But for the time being he is sorted. But note that he has enough food for just two days. (Community advisor, Norfolk).


We will continue to monitor the impact of the corona virus public health measures on vulnerable migrant communities in the UK in the weeks to come.



(Inside a squat in Norfolk. Picture: authors’ own)




By Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, and Fiona Costello, University of Cambridge.

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