Fostering labour mobility within and from Africa

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Ambassador of Sweden to Ethiopia and Djibouti, H.E. Ambassador Torjorn Pettersson and Maureen Achieng, Head of Mission, IOM Ethiopia and Representative to AUC, IGAD & UNECA exchange notes during the signing ceremony at the Symposiumin Nairobi

By NBM Writer

As the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Migration observed in a recent study, Flexible immigration procedures are required to facilitate the easy movement of skilled workers between countries and business venues. Around the world tension has arisen between governments concerned to fulfill their sovereign responsibility to manage migration, and the needs of businesses to secure access to the most talented people.

Often, operational investment decisions are the result, at least in part, of the ability to fill needed skill sets from accessible talent pools. As more countries enter the global competition for talent, innovative policies for resolving this tension have emerged, including preferential visa regimes and quota procedures.One region that has tended to lag behind is Africa. While the free movement of labour is a principle enshrined in certain sub-regional agreements, often it is either not ratified or effectively implemented, while in other parts of Africa obstacles to mobility, even of talented Africans, are prohibitive, time consuming or costly. Overall barriers to African talent mobility are a drag on the continent’s growth and economic performance. Freer movement of talented people is becoming an increasingly important issue to address as African countries pursue policies designed to encourage economic growth.

The symposium on “Fostering Labour Mobility within and from Africa” is the latest of these efforts geared towards fostering mobility.

The symposium

Government representatives from the ministries of labour from all the 55 African Union member states, as well as ministers of Foreign Affairs from the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) converged in Nairobi from tenth to twelfth July, for a symposium to establish a roadmap to promote the right of African migrant workers to move, reside and work freely within the continent.Participants also included representatives from all eight African Regional Economic Communities and selected European Union (EU) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Member States.

Among others, they were expected to develop a common position among governments in East and West Africa on minimum requirements in the development and implementation
of agreements that protect labour and social rights of workers migrating within and
from the continent to EU and GCC member states.

The symposium was the first official continental level effort to implement the African Union Commission (AUC)- led Joint Labour Migration Programme (JLMP), which was adopted by the heads of AU Members States in 2015.

The JLMP estimates the 52.6% of migrants in Africa relocate within the African continent. Little has however, been achieved in securing the benefits from this movement of regulating it to ensure better protection for migrant workers. Challenges remain in implementing the few existing instruments. According to Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, a key player in the promotion of labour mobility on the continent, Africa has 18.6 million migrants, including 3.7 million refugees and 11.8 million internally displaced persons out of a total population of 1.1 billion people. Surprisingly, only 11.4 million of these live outside the continent. In fact, not only does Africa have the lowest rate in the world of migrants in the total population of a state at 2%, only 9% of the world’s migrants are African. Migration has largely been across borders within the continent with current figures standing at 86%.

Seventy percent of inter African emigration in West Africa and 66% in southern Africa are within the sub-regions, while 90% of North African emigration is outside the continent.  Intraregional emigration in sub-Saharan Africa is the largest movement of the people in the world. These numbers are explained by a burgeoning poverty, high unemployment levels, conflict, wars and natural disasters that cause people to move in search of better livelihood.

As it is, there is a weak development of the social security systems of some of the countries of origin, which fail to cover all the benefits granted by the destination countries. There is also a lack of compatibility between different social security systems and insufficient administrative capacities in several states to ensure adequate protection and guarantee an efficient transfer of benefits accrued over several years.

Incidents of labour and other rights abuses of migrant workers, xenophobic attacks on migrants and indiscriminate expulsions highlight the challenges of realizing decent work, equality of treatment and protection of human rights according to the standards ratified by many African states.

Barriers to labour mobility

The barriers fall into five principle categories: restrictive quotas; procedural obstacles; inappropriate visa requirements; insufficient capacity and recognition of qualifications:

A survey conducted by the (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Migration shows that many African countries promote a national preference system by imposing a quota on the number of foreign workers in their domestic sectors. Gabon, for example imposes a 10% quota while discussions are underway to impose similar quotas per the recommendations of the National Executive Committee of the ruling ANC party. The argument for quotas has been the need to protect the national labour force and is often advanced by the larger economies on the continent. Large conglomerates in the study were however concerned that they were either unnecessarily prohibitive, or that they are not applied consistently. In both cases quotas risk reducing the supply of talent to business rather than promoting local employment, especially where they are not regularly revised.

In the majority of countries covered by the WEF survey, procedural obstacles to applying for, processing, and renewing visas and work permits were reported. At the application stage, problems ranged from a lack of published information on visa requirements (Algeria, Uganda) through a lack of uniformity in visa requirements between different Embassies and High Commissions (Nigeria, South Africa) to inconsistency in instructions concerning supporting documentation such as education certificates (Egypt, Uganda). An inordinate processing time was reported in Algeria, Chad, Tanzania and Uganda; in Ghana the processing fee was considered too high; and in two other cases concerns were expressed about the discretionary power of immigration officers. In Madagascar and Swaziland responding companies had experienced difficulties in having work permits renewed.

Surveyed companies also identified a range of visa-related obstacles across numerous African countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, the number of different visas required (entry, exit, working establishment) was reported to have become burdensome. In Nigeria the eligibility criteria for a visa for a skilled worker were considered to be too demanding. In the case of one specific visa in Senegal, it was unclear what sort of work permit could subsequently be issued.

In a number of countries referred to by the respondents, these and other obstacles arose not necessarily because a legal or policy framework was absent, but because there was felt to be a lack of capacity to implement the framework. Across several responses and countries, concerns were expressed about a shortage of staff, a lack of trained staff, misunderstanding of the procedures, and too much individual discretionary power.It was reported in a number of countries yet, that in order to be eligible for a work permit/visa, it is required to hold formal qualifications (such as a degree or diploma) relating to the position to be
filled. The effect is to exclude candidates who do not hold formal qualifications, but whose in-work training, experience and vocational skills mean that they are amply qualified for the role.

Way forward

Although migration is first and foremost an individual strategy, migrants are understood as being actors of development. They carry enormous potential for poverty reduction and human development. This impact goes far beyond the improvement of the living standards of one single family. It also reaches their places of origin, often rural areas, with which migrants retain family and community ties. To effectively reap the development potential of migrants, migration governance is essential. 

The symposium with senior labour and foreign affairs officers in attendance was therefore critical for two reasons. First, it was intended to culminate in the development of a roadmap that evaluates ways in which African Countries can enhance safe and orderly labour migration in Africa through policies, legislation and structure and secondly, the establishment of minimum requirements in the development and implementation of bilateral and
multilateral agreements that will safeguard the human, labour and social rights of migrant workers from East and West Africa to EU and GCC Member States. The conference was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Dutch Embassy in Ethiopia, the EU and the IOM International Development Fund (IDF). At the end of the symposium, countries signed the Protocol to the treaty establishing the African Economic Community Relating to the Free Movement of People. JLMP Swedish also funded a three-year programme with the IOM to the tune of $9 million (Sh906 million), focusing on the EAC, ECOWAS and SADC.

The main objectives of the JLMP include increasing domestication of key international standards on labour migration; achieving wider elaboration, adoption and implementation of harmonized free circulation regimes and coherent national labour migration policies in the regional economic communities; enabling institutions to fulfill their roles in labour migration governance, policy and administration; establishing regional mechanisms for tripartite policy consultation and coordination on labour migration issues as well as facilitating consultation and cooperation with other regions and supporting decent work for migrants with effective application of labour standards to migrant workers including extending social security to migrants.

Speaking at the symposium, Renate Held, director, department of migration management IOM Kenya noted that a labour market
and a migration regime that has ethical recruitment and the human rights of migrants as its central pillars would serve to reduce unemployment pressures on the sending countries whilst increasing the levels of income for families, cultural exchanges and understanding and providing much needed foreign currency reserves for the sending countries through remittances. She underscored the need to have a solid data management foundation to ensure effective labour migration system.

Her Excellency Amira Elfadil, Commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union Commission reported two significant achievements in the quest towards achieving the aspired mobility; the establishment of the process of periodically producing a Labour Migration Statistics Report. The first edition was produced and published in March 2017 using the International Labour Organization standards and tools. The production of the second edition is ongoing with the participation of National Statistical Offices of 45 AU Member States so far.  The second achievement was the ongoing implementation, by the ILO, of EU funded two-year report project on social security access and portability covering the EAC, ECOWAS and SADC.

This latest symposium was a roaring success in terms of policy making and commitment, only time can tell whether it will result in better times for the labour market.