Published on Arab Voices

On the Move: Labor Agreements (It takes two to Tango)

The recent tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy highlights the risks that many migrants face. For a large number of people around the world moving is still one of the surest ways of expanding their opportunities and improving their lives. The World Bank's International Labor Mobility program has been dedicated to rethinking the current approach to this movement. Our new series, ‘On the Move’ presents new ideas which showcase a sample of this program's approach, with the aim of changing the debate around migration by focusing on ways of promoting the safe movement of people and unlocking its many potential gains.

Spillovers from the Syrian Crisis Stretching Lebanon to the Breaking PointFor the relatively unskilled, moving to another country for better employment opportunities, has been described as nothing less than getting the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. In the developed world, the days of “give us your tired and weary masses” seem to have been replaced by immigration regimes that shout, “give us only your best and brightest!”

There are many people around the world eager to move to locations where employment opportunities exist in labor intensive services, such as agriculture or old age care. Encouraging this kind of mobility could potentially offset labor shortages in receiving countries while alleviating poverty for sending country populations. . Sadly, this win-win outcome remains elusive, as willing and eager would-be migrants stay trapped in their own countries.

Attempts to solve this problem multilaterally have not worked, and even attempts at easing the movement of labor by opening up trade in services have failed.  Hence, the only vehicle that offers any hope for such mobility are Bilateral Labor Agreements (BLAs), which are essentially  cooperation agreements to manage labor migration between migrants’ origin and  receiving countries.  For the relatively unskilled, BLAs  take on the form of Temporary Movement of Persons (TMP) schemes, i.e., circumscribed access into certain sectors for a fixed duration of time after which return is mandatory.  However, in practice, very few of these agreements have proven to be effective in achieving their intended objectives. In particular the failures of the first generation of guest worker programs have cast a long shadow over the recent attempts to start new types of temporary labor mobility programs.

Considering the importance of BLAs for labor mobility in the Euro-Mediterranean region and beyond, the World Bank’s International Labor Mobility team (ILM) at the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) has invested significant efforts in understanding their functioning on the ground and key conditions for success. For this purpose, the team conducted a detailed diagnostic of the French-Tunisian BLA and compared it with other prominent schemes for temporary labor mobility around the world. Based on the findings, the team held frank and in-depth consultations with relevant public and private stakeholders in North Africa and Europe to discuss ways to renew confidence in existing BLAs and create new programs in closer coordination with non-state actors.

For a start, let’s clearly acknowledge the two crucial aspects of bilaterally carved TMPs that have made them the bête noire of labor mobility efforts.  The first is that the objectives of the migrant’s origin country do not line up easily with those of the receiving country – especially when it comes to ensuring job fit, worker selection, temporariness – and these differences increase the risk of such arrangements falling apart. The second problem is that somehow these agreements are treated similar to trade deals - once access to the market is granted, the onus of market entry is on the exporter. This has meant migrants are their own when it comes to finding work. However, labor market access will not automatically translate into employment without significant attention to the systems that help migrants search, find, integrate, and be productive in their new jobs. It is no wonder that the phrase, “we asked for workers but you sent us your people instead” has lingered in the psyche of receiving countries for so long.

Through the ILM team’s work on BLAs, we found that these intractable problems could only be addressed if careful attention was paid to the design and then implementation of these agreements. A first difficulty at the design level is to choose the sector carefully, figuring out whether the labor needs are temporary or permanent, if the skills requested are available in sending countries or require additional training before and upon arrival, etc. The next and subsequent challenge is to ensure the commercial viability of the scheme, which involves finding relevant cost-sharing mechanisms between the different stakeholders to ensure fairness and avoid overstaying; setting a relevant duration for workers’ stay and allowing for repeated stays for temporary migrants who comply with the terms of their contract; selecting workers with the relevant skill profile to avoid over qualification for the positions offered; meeting private sector needs and adjusting the program to labor market conditions as these evolve.

The main implementation challenge is then to ensure that regular collaboration spaces are organized between public agencies and non-state actors on both sides – including employers, workers, private recruiters and diaspora members - to discuss and solve practical issues together. In particular, involving local and sectoral federations of employers early on allows for better identifying their skill needs, prospecting job offers and organizing recruitment in safe and effective ways. Labor sending countries’ governments alone often lack the resources, networks and know how to prospect job offers and maintain a presence abroad in order to build sustainable relationships with employers in destination markets.

We are now entering a truly exciting phase of our work. We are trying to take all the lessons that we’ve learnt and apply them to the design of new bilateral schemes between the Maghreb and Europe. We are working with receiving countries and employers to understand the demand side and with sending countries to assess their supply readiness. No surprise that even what looks like a perfect match from afar turns out to need policy and capacity building advice and assistance to actually bring demand and supply together. Our role has been welcomed here on three counts: in creating an environment where such conversations about supply-demand matching can occur in a frank and constructive manner; identifying and filling key capacity gaps on the sending side; and in being able to tie into the Bank’s work on labor markets such as our work on Active Labor Market Policies or in strengthening domestic employment and vocational training institutes.  These three elements are helping to put some of the sorely needed trust and confidence back into forging such agreements in these migratory corridors. As every Tango dancer knows well, before partners can dance together they must first learn to walk together to the music.


Yann Pouget

Migration Specialist

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