Labor migration and translocal families: Mobile lives during the pandemic

Marit Aure,
UIT The Arctic University of Norway,

Laura Assmuth,
University of Eastern Finland,

Marina Hakkarainen,
Research Fellow,
European University at St. Petersburg,

Pihla Maria Siim,
Junior Research Fellow,
University of Tartu,

The economies of Eastern and Northern Europe increasingly depend on labor migration. Industries as well as public and private services in Nordic countries rely on both temporary and permanent labor from Eastern European countries. At the same time, families, communities, and public institutions in many countries are equally relying on wages earned abroad. The outburst of COVID-19 affects migrant workers, commuters, and their family members unexpectedly. Borders dismantled since the 1990s, becoming open or porous, have again become obstacles for going to work and making a living, as well as to returning home, spending time with children, parents, partners, and siblings. Based on research in the Inequalities of Mobility: Relatedness and Belonging of Transnational Families in the Nordic Migration Space project, we stress the substantial effect of COVID-19 on what we call translocal families.

The driving “workforce” of transnational economies are women and men, of different ages, embedded in family relations. Their border crossings result in a variety of translocal family forms for restricted periods of time, or for decades. Their everyday lives take place between different locations. Some migrant workers and commuters live most of their lives away from their families, yet sustain social relations through phones, Internet, money, gifts, traditions, and travel. Translocal familyhood hence comprises care, belonging, identity, emotion, everyday issues, politics, economic and national welfare systems, which are all now affected by the pandemic.

Until the COVID-19 global crisis, mobility and migration were increasing. Presently, however, migration is undergoing dramatic changes. On the one hand, these changes convey many problems. Some or all family members who work, live, and go to school in a different country, while remaining connected physically, emotionally, and digitally to their home countries, face new uncertainties and disruptions. Lithuanian women and men who work in the fish-processing industry in Northern Norway and uphold Norwegian local communities are not allowed to cross the border; Estonian and other East European construction workers who make up one fourth of the labor force in the Finnish construction sector, cannot lead their translocal lives as usual, but get stuck either in Finland or in their home country. Many people have lost their jobs. Even for those deemed “necessary workers,” who are able to continue working abroad, the restrictions mean uncertain and long-term absence from family and responsibilities “back home.” Contract work becomes more uncertain, and the regularity of commuting is interrupted. While some people get paid for quarantine periods, many must cover the costs themselves.

On the other hand, these changes involve new opportunities: some children from Estonia could join their parents in Finland, and attend school digitally. Some people were forced to seriously ponder their future and make decisions regarding their return—something that some of them had talked about for years. Overall, the pandemic alters everyday lives economically and time-wise. While migrant workers and their vital role in different sectors and communities is valued, discourses on migrant workers as virus carriers across borders are also prominent. When migrant workers are depicted as threats, their possibilities to continue translocal lives are weakened.


Expert article 2981

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