Op-ed: The #Coronavirus Pandemic and Labour Migration in #Africa
By Prof Adesoji Adesugba, DBA
The outbreak in late 2019 of the novel #coronavirus (COVID-19), and now labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), is redefining humanity. With over 4 million affected people and over 285,000 deaths, of these figures, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 May 2020 stated that over 63,000 confirmed #COVID-19 cases on the African continent – with more than 2,280 associated deaths. The virus has disregarded status, class, race, religion, nationality, gender, creed and location, businesses, and government operations. The world of work, as well as individual and communal lives, have been affected in profound and dire ways.
This new virus most negatively impacts migrant workers who rarely benefit from equal treatment in employment and often struggle to access social rights in their countries of residence. These workers are mostly in informal, low-skilled, precarious employment in areas such as agriculture, construction, and domestic work. And are often subjected to many forms of discrimination and engaging.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the introduction of travel restrictions worldwide, thousands of people are stranded in different countries across the world. As stated by the Global Humanitarian Response Plan COVID-19 launched by the United Nations, the current pandemic is also fast becoming a mobility crisis. Against this background, international migrants, regardless of their migratory status, will be more exposed to the immediate and long-term harms of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of COVID-19 on global economies will have a significant bearing on vulnerable groups including refugees, migrants, Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and host communities due to the loss of income, restricted movement, reduced access to markets, inflation, and a spike in prices. The effect of the coronavirus on migration in Africa and the world of work has been negative, mostly due to the shutdown of the world supply chains and restrictions on movement by almost all countries. Migration and the world of work are very closely linked, because people mostly migrate in search of better living and economic conditions or even for those escaping from conflict as finding employment inevitably becomes essential also for this group.
The African Union Labour Migration Advisory Committee (LMAC), in a statement published on its website, expressed concern about the welfare of African migrant workers, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) caught in the crossfire of this current global health crisis. The African Union acknowledged and commended the critical support and coordination of the efforts of Member States by the Africa Center for Disease Control (Africa CDC) as well as the measures being taken by Ministry of Labour of Member States, and the African Union Commission to address the COVID-19 at the workplace.
Virtually all countries in the world have placed travel restrictions in all destinations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), this represents the most severe restriction on international travel in history. Presently, no country has so far lifted restrictions introduced in response to the crisis. The latest data from the UNWTO shows that 100% of destinations now have restrictions in place. Of these, 83% have had COVID-19-related restrictions in place already for four or more weeks, and, as of 20 April, so far, no destination has lifted them.
The implication of the imposed travel restrictions worldwide on migrant workers is problematic. The problem associated with those who were caught by the travel restrictions in other countries is already leading to this category of migrants from suffering untold hardship. They will get no assistance from host countries due to their illegality; they will also be more likely to be exposed to the virus and have no access to medical facilities. There are reports that African migrant workers in places such as Spain and China are already facing untold hardship due to discrimination and restrictions on their fundamental human rights. For instance, In the Guangdong Province in China, black residents were barred from transportation, from going to malls, booking hotel rooms, and access to medical facilities. The migrants were also stigmatized as carriers of the virus.
Traditionally Migration in Africa dates back to centuries and comprises of those who had willingly migrated to other countries in search of work and better living conditions; those who were traders and ended up living in host countries; students who ended up living in host countries after their education; and those who were forcibly taken to other countries to work as slaves by foreigners. Recent migration can be categorized into three, skilled workers, unskilled workers, traders, and others.
Some of the skilled workers are known to have obtained their resident visas to foreign countries through legal means in their countries of origin, for this category of migrant workers, they face less of the hazards faced by unskilled workers. Most of the latter find their way to other countries through illegal and precarious routes. Regardless of the category of African migrant workers, all of them had, in recent years, contributed to the inflow of much-needed capital into African economies through the repatriation of their earned income to relatives in Africa.
The World Bank recently reported that remittances have become the main source of foreign exchange revenue for the region. Still, this crisis is expected to hit twice as hard because the coronavirus outbreak affects both the recipient and source country and will “probably lead to further poverty and deprivation.” Global remittances are expected to fall by 20% this year to $445 billion. With the pandemic, and the loss of employment worldwide affecting migrant workers, it is expected that Sub Saharan African countries will see remittance flows drop by 23.1% to $37 billion in 2020 in the wake of the Covid-19 economic crisis, according to a World Bank forecast. In 2019 it dipped by 0.5% to $48 billion. The reduction in remittances is expected to affect the economies of African Nations in the short run.
According to the World Bank, Sub -Saharan Africa’s economic growth stabilized at 3.4 percent in 2019, and the World Africa Economic Outlook 2020 projected that Economic growth for Africa was expected to increase to 3.9 percent in 2020 and 4.1 percent in 2021. Growth’s fundamentals were also improving, with a gradual shift from private consumption toward investment and exports. Also, in 2019, for the first time in a decade, investment accounted for more than half the continent’s growth, with private consumption accounting for less than one third.
However, with the coming of the pandemic, the economic outlook of Africa in the first quarter of 2020 has been best put, dismal, and forecasts indicate that for the year 2020, the economic growth will be in the negative. Recently, the World Bank released its biannual Africa’s Pulse report, which discusses the macroeconomic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa. This edition focuses on the significant challenges that COVID-19 presents to African economies.
The above report projects that, as a result of the pandemic, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa will decline from 2.4 percent in 2019 to between -2.1 percent and -5.1 percent in 2020, depending on the success of measures taken to mitigate the pandemic’s effects. In other words, the report predicts that the region will experience its first recession in 25 years. Countries that depend on the export of single products like oil, such as Nigeria and Angola, are already feeling the impact of the economic downturn, coupled with the adverse economic effects of the crash in oil prices and the disruptions in the global supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of this on employment is apparent; at the moment, companies are scaling down and some outrightly shutting down. The hitherto high unemployment rates in sub-Saharan African countries, which were already in a crisis is even going to worsen due to the pandemic. The latest figures from the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates the number of unemployed young people on the continent at nearly 60% of the available workforce. Before 2020, Africa was facing the challenge of creating nearly twelve million additional jobs to contain unemployment.
The implication of the rise in unemployment in a post-COVID-19 world is that more African youths are likely to make desperate attempts to migrate in search of better economic prospects. Over the last ten years, there was an upsurge in this group of young people becoming more daring in their attempt to migrate to other countries where they feel there are better opportunities. Recently, the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA), which was expected to commence on 1 July 2020, was put on hold. The expected opportunities from the AFCFTA, which includes labor mobility, relaxation of visa regimes, are already seeing a setback with most countries placing restrictions on the issuance of visas for all categories of visitors.
The effect of the upsurge in unemployment globally is bound to have adverse effects on African migrants in their country of residents. Africa should expect a possible increase in returnees, primarily if the continent effectively uses the pandemic to improve on its infrastructure and increase its industrial capacity, thereby creating more jobs and a better socio-economic environment.
Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, most African countries were encouraging their skilled diaspora citizens to return home to contribute to the development of African Nations. Most of these countries have some form of resettlement programs for returning migrants. These programs include reskilling, entrepreneurship development, job placement, loans for new setups. Africa must be ready for returning migrants who are affected by the loss of jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One way of discouraging migration and encouraging the diaspora to return is for African countries to create an enabling environment, which can reset their economies. They can use this opportunity to plan and implement development projects. African countries should encourage investments in production by ensuring an enabling environment that will improve productivity. This will inevitably direct the energy of the teeming unemployed youths to new jobs, thereby reducing the urge to migrate to other countries in search of a better life.
African countries should, in the long-run, view the COVID-19 as an opportunity for a reset of their economic development strategies. The pandemic has revealed a myriad of development deficiencies in African Nations. Africa should shift to a new paradigm that will make life more meaningful to the over one billion people, mostly youths who had hitherto lived in abject poverty, with a high mortality rate from infectious diseases, and little hope for jobs and decent living. The future of Africa can change positively, and people can work with pride and can live decently. With the improved economic development of African Nations, the desire to migrate in search of greener pastures will reduce. For that positive change to occur, there must be the political will on the part of African leaders for a positive change to happen. Currently, the body language of most African leaders in the heat of the pandemic, as indicated by the manner some leaders have managed the crisis of containing the virus, suggests that Africa may just end up post-COVID-19, developing a positive attitude towards its development.
*Prof. Adesoji Adesugba is the Provost of the ACCI Business Entrepreneurship Skills and Technology (BEST) Centre, he writes from Abuja.