Fostering labour mobility in Africa

For many businesses on the continent, it is easier to employ a skilled non-African expatriate than an African expatriate


By TNLM Writer

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 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.

Not only does this thwart innovation and business competitiveness, but it may also contribute to the so-called ‘brain drain’ that takes skilled Africans away from their own continent. For many businesses in Africa it is easier to employ a skilled non-African expatriate than an African expatriate.

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 and 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), amongst others, converged in Nairobi last month for a symposium to establish a roadmap to promote the right of African migrant workers to move, reside and work freely within the continent.

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 Gulf states.

The symposium was the first official continental level effort to implement the African Union Commission-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.

According to Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 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. 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%.

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. A number of barriers to labour mobility have been noted.


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 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.

Other barriers include prohibitive visa requirements, qualifications, and a lack of capacity to implement the framework.

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, governing migration is essential.

The primary objectives of the JLMP include increasing domestication of key international standards on labour migration, achieving wider elaboration, adoption and implementation of harmonised 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.

Her Excellency Amira Elfadil, Commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union Commission reported two significant achievements in the quest towards achieving this aspired mobility; establishment of the process of periodically producing a Labour Migration Statistics Report; and the ongoing implementation, by the ILO, of EU funded two-year report project on social security access and portability covering Africa’s main regional blocs – EAC, ECOWAS and SADC.

This latest symposium was a success in terms of policy making and commitment, which, it is hoped, will result in better times for the labour market. (



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