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ILO study finds migrants earn much less than locals, and the gap is widening

The report, “The migrant pay gap: Understanding wage differences between migrants and nationals”, examined 49 countries that host half the world’s migrant workers and found that migrants were earning nearly 13 per cent less on average.

“What our report shows is that even before COVID-19 migrant workers suffered significant inequality and treatment in terms of wages. And we know that the wage gap not only has widened in the past few years, but migrants continue to be the subject of discrimination during this pandemic”, said Michelle Leighton, chief of ILO’s Labour Migration Branch.

Women suffer double discrimination

In some cases the gap could be explained by objective factors such as education, skills and experience, but otherwise discrimination was the main reason why migrants earned less, she said at a press conference held to present the findings of the report.

“Therefore tackling discrimination and prejudices that are deeply entrenched in the workplace and our society is more important than ever. And addressing the migrant pay gap is not only a matter of social justice, but it’s also important to reduce inequalities between women and men to reduce income inequalities between households”, Ms. Leighton said.

Women migrants often worked in domestic or care jobs, facing a double dose of wage discrimination, as they earned less than nationals and less than male migrants on average.

The wage gap was highest in Cyprus, at 42 per cent, Italy at 30 per cent and Austria at 25 percent. For the European Union as a whole it was less than the global average, at under 9 per cent.

In high-income countries, migrants were often in precarious work, with 27 per cent on temporary contracts and 15 per cent working part time, and they tended to work in agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining, quarrying, manufacturing, energy and water utilities or construction.

But in poorer countries, where migrants tended to be skilled workers from richer countries who were sent on temporary work assignments, the pay gap was inverted, with migrants earning about 17.3 per cent more per hour than locals.

ILO/Marcel Crozet
A Bangladeshi garment worker is seen standing in the room she shares with other seven colleagues in a factory dormitory in Jordan.

Pandemic impact

The ILO team examined the impact of the pandemic on migrants in two countries: the United States and Mexico. Both countries suffered an initial surge in unemployment. When that surge subsided, many migrants in the United States were replaced by informal workers and remained unemployed, while in Mexico migrant workers found new jobs but at lower wages.

Earlier this month ILO Director-General Guy Ryder predicted that the world was facing a long and hard road back from the pandemic, which had struck the world of work “an extraordinary blow” almost overnight.

ILO wage specialist Rosalia Vasquez-Alvarez said women were more likely to work in sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic, such as trade, manufacturing, private health and the gig economy. High income economies were expected to suffer a huge wage depression in the next few months, she said.

“Overall, we expect a depression in wages that may actually have a bigger impact among migrant workers”, Ms. Vasquez-Alvarez said.

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