Silenced for raising questions on skilling migrants

While we support building migrants’ skills for employment, we do need to ask some hard questions, particularly, for whose benefit? This was what Abi Badru, PSI's health projects coordinator for West Africa had intended to raise at the GFMD Roundtable Discussion on the topic before she was abruptly cut off. Read her comments below.

One of the main themes of the 13th Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) that PSI together with the other Global Unions just took part was: “Skilling Migrants for Employment at the time of and post-Covid-19.” While we support building migrants’ skills for employment, however, we need to ask: for whose benefit? What kinds of skills? And for which types of employment? These were the kinds of questions that I chose to address as the trade union speaker at the GFMD Roundtable Discussion on this topic.

The forum took place online from 18-26 January, being preceded by the Civil Society Preparatory Meeting, also online, from 7-15 January.

Abi Badru, PSI's health projects coordinator for West Africa
Abi Badru, PSI's health projects coordinator for West Africa

The PSI position on the issue of skilling for migration is clear. We support the skilling of workers for employment, but not the skilling of workers for the purpose of migration.

Migrants should not be treated as commodities. Migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons are entitled to the respect of their fundamental human rights, including their labour rights.

From the discussions, it was evident that many issues needed addressing, yet GFMD proponents continue to ignore them. Speakers from the business and diaspora communities were overly enthusiastic about how to move about labour from developing regions in the South to the richer countries in the North, and how to reap the benefits of migration through these labour-market-based pathways. Yet the systemic inequalities that push many workers to migrate, especially in the health sector, seemed to be left out of the discussion.

From this roundtable and in the whole forum, one can observe that the discussions were tilted towards the needs of business and on profiting from the skills of the migrant workers.

While employers and businesses are only clearly interested in “harvesting skills and talents,” workers and advocates need to insist that we equally discuss fair and ethical recruitment of health workers that will not lead to a race to the bottom, unregulated recruitment, and a huge deficit in the healthcare system in the countries of origin. We need to address the real root causes of migration, such as poverty, underfunding of public health services, lack of decent work, limited social protection and understaffing of the health care system.

Without addressing these issues, the skilling for employment is just a myth as it is about the employers' interest in skills only.

Brain drain

At the heart of the Covid-19 lockdowns, rich countries were poaching health workers and creating considerable gaps in the already weak health systems in Africa, including in Nigeria, where over 4,000 doctors were leaving the country even while the airport was closed.

This is the reality of many countries in Africa and in Asia, which are the regions with the highest shortages of health workers. While the health systems in the Global North are strengthened, the already fragile healthcare systems in the Global South are continually depleted.

There is a need for social dialogue to address issues of core labour standards, decent work, social protection for migrant workers and sustainability of the human resources for health, and not only to talk about the skills that migrants possess. Moreover, it also begs the question of the loss of resources that developing countries have invested in training these workers.

In bilateral and multilateral agreements between member countries, these issues need to be addressed at the sectoral level. Involving workers and their unions in these agreements through social dialogue can help ensure balance in perspectives and the protection of workers’ human and labour rights.

The Germany-Philippines bilateral labour agreement on Nurses is a good practice example, where trade unions are genuinely involved in the implementation of the agreement, thereby ensuring fair and ethical recruitment, decent work, non-discrimination and full coverage of protections, as well as addressing the human resource needs in the country of origin.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed all these systemic and structural inequalities that already existed but were only heightened by the crisis. A discussion of skills and labour mobility outside the context of these inequalities, development asymmetries and fundamental human rights will only lead to more disasters when we have not even overcome this current one.

*Abi Badru is also a registered nurse and Assistant General Secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives. She is currently seconded by her union to assist in implementing PSI’s health sector projects in West Africa.

Related links and resources

Building Resilience Across Borders: A Policy Brief on Health Worker Migration

PSI, together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), is launching a new publication, “Building Resilience Across Borders: A Policy Brief on Health Worker Migration.” The brief aims to raise awareness and stimulate discussion about migration in the light of recent global policy developments on health worker migration, setting this in the context of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic