Labour Migration in Africa

Labour migration in Africa is largely intra-regional (80%)1 and mainly characterized by the migration of low-skilled workers. Of great importance in the region is the consolidation of significant South-South migration corridors to neighbouring labour markets in the search for a job and better wages. Indeed, today, there are few African countries not participating in migration flows, whether as countries of origin, transit or destination. Demand in economic sectors such as agriculture, fishing, mining and construction as well as services such as domestic work, health care, cleaning, restaurants and hotels, and retail trade are significant drivers within the continent. African migrants, asylum seekers and forcibly displaced persons often use the same migration routes. Growing inter-regional corridors to the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as more traditional flows to Europe and North America are noteworthy

The International Labour Organization (ILO)’s strategy on labour migration in the African region is guided by its International Labour Standards (ILS) and Decent Work Agenda, and implemented in close collaboration with the World of Work actors (Ministries of Labour and workers’ and employers’ organisations from the 54 African countries). ILO’s rights-based approach takes into consideration labour market needs and covers all migrant workers irrespective of nationality, skill level and immigration status.

ILO’s labour migration work contributes to the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration adopted in December 2018 and falls in line with the commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in particular its migration-related aspects: SDG 8 to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (SDG target 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment); and, SDG 10 on reducing inequality within and among countries (SDG target 10.7. Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies). Work also includes support for constituents’ implementation of the new Mobility-related Guidance of the United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs).

ILO’s work is strongly informed by Africa’s Agenda 2063 (particularly Aspirations 1 and 2 and related continental and national strategies)2; the 2014 African Union Commission’s (AUC) “Ouagadougou + 10 Declaration and Plan of Action on Employment, Poverty Eradication and Inclusive Development in Africa” (notably Key priority area number 5: Labour Migration and Regional Economic Integration) and its 5-Year Priority Programme of Action; the AU Revised Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action 2018-2030 (mainly 2.1 National labour migration policies, structures and legislation, and 2.2 Regional cooperation and harmonisation of Labour Migration Policies); as well as the AU Free Movement of Persons Protocol (particularly its labour migration and mobility-related provisions).

ILO’s work includes the promotion of labour migration policies based on accurate data and a deep analysis of the supply and demand for foreign labour (existing and potential labour market needs) considered beneficial to the economy and development of both countries of origin and destination. Work should be based on social and economic long-term development objectives while leaving a certain amount of flexibility permitting to respond to short-term demands.

ILO’s labour migration and labour mobility work is thus closely coordinated with ILO’s Decent Work Technical Teams (particularly social dialogue, employment and skills, social protection and standards specialists) and capitalizes on its technical expertise on labour market governance. In such efforts, the ILO fosters achievements at the local, national, sub-regional, regional and inter-regional level. More particularly, ILO’s work aims to achieve fair labour migration and decent work outcomes for all migrant workers3.

Since 2014, the ILO has worked closely with the African Union Commission (AUC), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to develop a Joint Programme on Labour Migration Governance for Development and Integration (JLMP) in Africa. The JLMP represents a broad framework in which to anchor most labour migration work in the region, particularly in supporting Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. The JLMP was adopted by the African Heads of State and Governments during the 24th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in January 2015. The JLMP includes as one of its main objectives: achieving better governance of labour and skills mobility within Africa (in particular with the Regional Economic Communities (RECs)). It focuses on facilitating the free movement of workers as a crucial means of advancing regional integration and development in Africa. The ILO is directly implementing or contributing to the implementation of the JLMP particularly through two main projects in the continent:

a) The AU-IOM-ILO JLMP-Priority project (funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)) and which has as its main objective to contribute to improved labour migration governance to achieve safe, orderly and regular migration in Africa as committed in relevant frameworks of the African Union (AU) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs), as well as in relevant international human rights and labour standards and other cooperation processes;

b) The project “Extending social protection access and portability of benefits to migrant workers and their families in selected RECs in Africa” (funded by the EU Pan African Migration and Mobility Dialogue (MMD) Facility) which principal objective is extending social protection to migrant workers (including those in the informal sector), by strengthening Regional Economic Communities’ capacities (working mainly with EAC, ECOWAS, and SADC) to provide as well as to drive the implementation of regional frameworks on the extension of social protection to migrant workers and their families.

It is also important to mention that one of the most important complementary areas of work of the ILO is the promotion of job-rich employment policies and of decent work to combat migration root causes. The economic outlook for Africa is set to improve, with growth projected to reach 3.7 per cent in 2017, up from 2.1 per cent in 20164 (ILO 2018 WESO report). While growth is anticipated to gradually recover and increase broadly in the region, it will still remain below the level needed to tackle Africa’s current social and labour market challenges effectively, particularly lack of job creation, underemployment and quality of work. Youth unemployment is, and will continue to be, a major challenge that needs to be addressed. Other important migration related push factors comprise: demographic pressure, political instability, extreme poverty, wide income inequalities, military conflict, terrorism, corruption, lack of respect for the rule of law, poor governance, and environmental degradation causing droughts, deforestation, etc.

The African Union’s 2015 Report on Labour Migration Statistics in Africa highlighted that international migration in Africa is largely across Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and that the labour force participation rate of international migrants in Africa seems to be higher than that of the general population representing the highest 93.3% for Mauritius to the lowest (71.7%) for Ghana. The AU’s Regional Report also mentioned that the East African Community (EAC) registered the highest international migration rate, representing 2.2% with ECOWAS, CENSAD and IGAD following closely with 2.1%, 1.6% and 1.2%, respectively.

Expert studies and data show that migration, particularly labour migration, is an important enabler and beneficiary of regional integration and economic development in Africa. For example, the key findings of a recent ILO/OECD study on the impacts of immigration on developing countries’ economies5 showed the following:
  • Migrants can have a positive impact on economic growth. The study’s conclusions state that overall immigration is unlikely to depress gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, on the contrary. In some countries, the estimated contribution of immigrants to GDP represents up to 19% in Cote d’Ivoir6 .
  • Immigrants may also generate additional employment opportunities for native-born workers. Overall, in South Africa7 the study shows that recently arrived migrants actually represent a positive impact on native-born employment rates and monthly wages as well as a decrease in unemployment rates.
  • At the same time, when migrant workers are employed in the formal economy, their employment can have a positive effect on public finance. In Ghana8, the contribution of immigrants to the government’s fiscal balance exceeds the contribution of the native-born population (on a per capita basis). In addition, in South Africa immigrants have a positive net impact on the government’s fiscal balance.
However, migrants’ contribution to the economy depends on their job and working conditions. Thus, specific measures to counter exploitation, abuse and discrimination in the labour market and at the workplace should be discouraged. The real question is not how to stop migration, but how to make it part of the national, sub-regional and continental economic and social African development strategy. This entails strengthening labour market institutions to better govern intra-regional labour mobility, promoting fair recruitment processes, extending social protection to migrant workers and their families, addressing root causes of migration in selected migration prone areas affected by climate change, developing social dialogue and cooperation on the governance of labour migration and improving skills recognition and portability.

Maximizing the benefits of labour migration for migrant workers and their families as well as minimizing its risks and social costs requires fair and effective labour migration governance. Well-governed labour migration can contribute to sustainable development for countries of origin, transit and destination, and can provide benefits and opportunities for migrant workers and their families. It can balance labour supply and demand, help develop and transfer skills at all levels, contribute to social protection systems, foster innovation and enrich communities both culturally and socially. On the contrary, poorly governed labour migration can bring risks and challenges, including for sustainable development and decent work, in countries of origin, transit and destination, especially for low-wage workers. These risks can include insecurity and informality, brain drain, displacement, increased risk of child labour, debt bondage, forced labour, trafficking in persons, safety and health hazards and other decent work deficits. In some cases, some of these risks have lethal consequences. Racism, xenophobia and discrimination, misperceptions and misinformation add to the overall fragility challenges migrant workers can encounter during their labour migration experience9.

Overall, making the most of labour migration entails developing a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the short-term as well as the long-term labour market needs for migrant workers at all levels of skills and providing migrant workers with the necessary labour and social protection. Failure to do so, negatively affects productivity and competitiveness and can contribute to segmented labour markets.

  1. Flahaux, Marie-Laurence, De Hass, Hein: African migration: trends, patterns, drivers, Comparative Migration Studies, 2016.
  2. Africa’s Agenda 2063 calls for the free movement of people, capital, good and services, as part of Africa’s continental integration agenda.
  3. Please refer to the list of particular categories of international migrant workers included in the ILO: Guidelines concerning statistics of international labour migration, ICLS/20/2018/Guidelines, 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians, Geneva, 10-19 October 2018.
  4. ILO: World Employment Social Outlook Trends 2019 Report, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2019.
  5. ILO-OECD: How Immigrants Contribute to Developing Countries’ Economies
  6. ILO-OECD: How Immigrants Contribute to Ivory Coast's Economy
  7. ILO-OECD: How Immigrants Contribute to South Africa's Economy
  8. ILO-OECD: How Immigrants Contribute to Ghana's Economy
  9. ILO: Resolution and Conclusions on Fair and Effective Labour Migration Governance, 2017 International Labour Conference, June 2017, Geneva.