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Labour migration

In search of jobs: new ILO study on labour migration in North and West Africa

The global financial and economic crisis has brought with it significant employment and social challenges, particularly for migrant workers from developing countries. As a new ILO study on North and West Africa shows, the latter tend to be disproportionately affected by job losses in destination countries, with the flow of remittances to their countries of origin suffering a major decline. This has raised questions about the extent to which migration can contribute to development in countries of origin. ILO Online spoke with Steven Tobin, co-author of the study, about how best to leverage migration as a development factor.

Article | 29 April 2010

ILO Online: How did the global economic crisis affect North and West African economies and labour markets?

Steven Tobin: Already before the global crisis started in 2008, economic growth rates of more than 3.5 per cent in the five countries under review (Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia) fell short of generating significant improvements in the employment situation. The global crisis has intensified these labour market challenges. Growth slowed significantly in 2008 and 2009, which adversely affected labour demand and the creation of good jobs. Today, less than half of the people of working age have a job and, in the case of working-age women, less than one-quarter are employed. The challenge is particularly daunting for youth, where improving educational outcomes are not being matched with good job opportunities. In most of the five countries, the youth unemployment rate is close to 30 per cent.

ILO Online: What are the main factors driving emigration?

Steven Tobin: There are multiple “push” and "pull" factors underlying emigration but, economic reasons, notably the search for better jobs and decent incomes, remain central to the decision. Over two-thirds of male migrants from Morocco and Algeria residing in Spain indicated that they migrated for these reasons. The improvements in their employment situation can be substantial. In Spain, migrant workers from Morocco earn between 4.5 and 10.5 times the average earnings of men and women, respectively, in Morocco. Female migrant workers from Morocco residing in France earn 16 times more than the average earnings of women in Morocco, while the figure for men is close to 6 times.

ILO Online: The study says that labour migration can support development. Through what main channels?

Steven Tobin: Migration can be a positive factor in the development of countries of origin, notably through remittances and return migration. Remittances are an important source of financial flows to the region, having tripled since 1990 to reach over US$12 billion in 2008. For Morocco and Senegal, this amounts to 8 per cent or more of GDP. These financial flows can assist development directly by sustaining incomes in the countries of origin, and indirectly to the extent that remittances help to support education, healthcare, infrastructure and investment in the private sector.

Similarly, the return of migrant workers can contribute to development through the promotion, mobilization and utilization of productive resources. Many workers return having gained valuable experience and knowledge through the migration process. Some returnees invest savings accumulated abroad and engage in entrepreneurial activities, with significant multiplier effects.

ILO Online: To what extent did the crisis affect remittances?

Steven Tobin: As a result of the global economic and financial crisis, remittances to the region only grew by just over 4 per cent in 2008, compared to over 23 per cent in 2007, and they fell by an estimated 10 per cent in 2009. This decline is more pronounced than in other developing regions, where the estimated decline in remittances is around 6 per cent.

ILO Online: The study finds that the broader impact of remittances and return migration on development is limited in some ways. Can you explain how?

Steven Tobin: In practice, the contribution of labour migration to development is hindered by a number of factors. The report finds that between two-thirds and three-quarters of remittances to North and West Africa are destined for either the spouse/partner or parent, with the bulk of remittances used to support household subsistence. This financial inflow directly supports the living standards of migrants' families and their communities. But the report illustrates that the broader multiplier effects of remittances on employment and the economy could be enhanced in the countries under review.

Similarly, the desire of migrant workers to return is relatively low, even in the face of deteriorating conditions in the countries of destination. One of the primary reasons for returning to North and West Africa is to retire rather than to work or invest. In addition, much like remittances, the likelihood of returning seems to decline the longer the migrant stays in the country of destination and once family members are reunited.

However, the report documents a number of examples and practices from other countries and regions that highlight ways in which remittances and return migration can be better leveraged for development in the region.

ILO Online: How might factors like remittances and return migration fit into an overall development strategy?

Steven Tobin: Remittances and return migration must complement - not substitute - a longer term development strategy. Sustainable development can be grounded in efforts to improve social conditions, including the promotion of employment and decent work. Such efforts can be mutually reinforcing and help to create an environment that promotes return migration and investment in North and West Africa.

ILO Online: What is the role of the ILO in this respect?

Steven Tobin: Given the prominent role of decent work and incomes in the decision to migrate for work, the ILO has a prominent role to play. In particular, the ILO can make an important contribution through the promotion of jobs and enterprise creation, decent work conditions, and making employment an effective component of national development strategies. Moreover, as countries grapple with the various impacts of the financial and economic crisis, international organizations must continue to advance the migration and development agenda, working collaboratively at the global level to better integrate employment-related aspects. In this regard, the ILO Global Jobs Pact is an important and timely initiative.

ILO Decent Work Country Programmes are also unique opportunities to integrate migration, development and employment issues, in practical terms, into the Decent Work Agenda, where it could be a key strategic component for human and economic development. And finally, ILO standards and Conventions on migration provide tools for both origin and destination countries to regulate migration flows and to ensure adequate protection for this vulnerable category of workers.