There is a strong link between trade and mobility on the African continent. Migration and mobility have been linked to the economic development of Africa. This is reflected in several key African Union (AU) policy frameworks, including Boosting Intra-African Trade (BIAT) and Agenda 2063. In a recent report (Assessing the Implementation of the Objectives of Agenda 2063), the AU states that a key component to accelerating growth and expanding intra-African trade is the free movement of people. Thus, the relationship between the free movement of goods and services across the continent through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the free movement of people through the AU Free Movement Protocol (AU-FMP) is critical to realising the benefits of regional integration and trade.

Labour mobility helps to address labour market gaps. Businesses and enterprises require different skills to facilitate production and operations. Labour mobility contributes to productivity, economic growth and prosperity. The movement of people will continue, as migration is not only a human and natural phenomenon, but has also contributed to household livelihoods, well-being and economic development. Global demographics will also continue to dictate trends in labour migration. Europe will continue to age and expand economically and it will need workers to sustain it. Sadly, there is an abdication of responsibility on the part of many African governments towards their citizens. This contributes to desperate and dangerous journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

Poor governance of labour migration leads to abuse, exploitation, discrimination and other rights violations faced by migrant workers and their families. The majority of migrant workers, including domestic workers living and working in the Middle East, are exposed to harsh conditions and experiences created by the Kafala sponsorship system, unethical recruitment practices and the weak protection regimes provided by African governments to their nationals. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the plight of migrant workers.

Moreover, if Africa is to realise its full potential, it must consciously make its integration agenda work. In a sense, this is what the AfCFTA is trying to do: Integrate Africa through trade. Unfortunately, this will only go so far unless there is a conscious and proper redefinition and reorientation of the concept of “our borders, territories and sovereignty”. Historically, we agree that, as happened at the Berlin Conference in 1884, our borders were carved up and partitioned without our participation, consultation and consent. Partition led to the dislocation of community and family ties. We have cases where families, ethnic groups and nations have relatives on the other side of borders with different nationalities and different rules.

Poor governance of labour migration leads to abuse, exploitation, discrimination and other rights violations faced by migrant workers and their families.

The AU is guided by Agenda 2063. One of its priorities is the genuine and inclusive integration of the continent and its people. In pursuit of this, in 2018 it adopted the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Community on the Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment. While the AfCFTA has been overwhelmingly adopted and ratified, the AU Protocol on Free Movement of Persons (AU-FMP), six years later, has only been ratified by a handful of small African countries. As of January 2018, only Rwanda, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, and Mali have ratified the protocol, although more than 30 countries have signed it.

The movement of business people is negotiated under Mode 4 of the services commitment of the AfCFTA. Migration is not directly negotiated under the AfCFTA. There is a Protocol on the Movement of Persons – a separate instrument under the AU. Migration per se does not fall within the scope of the AfCFTA. The African Union Protocol on the Movement of Persons has been signed by 32 member states, but only four have ratified the Protocol (Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Príncipe and Mali), while 15 are needed for the Protocol to enter into force.

The AfCFTA is now in it’s second year of operation. The agreement establishing the continental free trade area was adopted on 21 March 2018. Proper trade under the AfCFTA started on 1 January 2021. As of May 2022, there were 54 signatories (excluding Eritrea), of which 43 (80%) had deposited their instruments of ratification. But the AU-FMP has yet to enter into force and become operational because it requires ratification by 15 countries. This undoubtedly hampers socio-economic integration. The actual and effective implementation and application of the AfCFTA is also affected by the slow readiness to adopt and implement the AU-FMP. The enthusiasm and cultural integration needed to enhance stability and security will be dampened, as will the ideas, skills and competencies needed to drive invention and innovation.

For women, who make up the majority of those involved in cross-border trade, the situation is even worse. The restrictions and bottlenecks associated with free movement stifle and undermine the activities and enterprise of cross-border traders. Despite these challenges, this category of traders has shown exceptional resilience. They want to earn enough to support themselves and their families. Cross-border traders have endured mental, psychological and physical abuse, exploitation and harassment while operating their businesses. Adequate safeguards to address these concerns will need to be identified and ensured under the AfCFTA.

The trade union movement wants to be involved in the ongoing negotiations on the AfCFTA and to see comprehensive labour provisions in the agreement. This is essential to ensure respect for fundamental ILO conventions, including freedom of association, and to prevent national labour laws from being revised downwards to reduce production costs in order to expand international trade and competition.

In addition, it is imperative that workers address issues that will have an impact in the future and receive responses and assurances to the concerns raised, in particular that the negotiation process has left little room for the structured and effective participation of citizens in their various socio-economic groups, including workers, farmers, women, youth and the domestic private sector.

In a related sense, there has been positive economic growth in many parts of Africa; the growth observed for more than two decades has been partly due to a commodity super-cycle. Increased trade, prudent macroeconomic management and sustained investment in infrastructure development have also contributed to growth. Sustaining strong growth, especially in times of shocks and other vulnerabilities – and more importantly, translating such growth into more inclusive transformation – has been a challenge for many African countries, despite efforts and policies to address these issues.

Research suggests that there is a growing link between globalisation and migration (both internal and international). In general, migration in Africa is largely informal and undocumented, making accurate data on the phenomenon extremely scarce. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a phenomenal increase in the wave of migration on the continent. Traditional causes of migration, including conflict, political repression, economic crisis and environmental factors, have been exacerbated in recent years by globalisation, creating new pressures that either facilitate or exacerbate the continent’s already huge and seemingly intractable migration problem.

More than 80 per cent of the labour migration flows of African nationals are intra-regional and take place within the African continent. Low-skilled workers responding to demands in agriculture, fishing, construction and services characterise labour flows. The majority of migrants face a lack of decent employment opportunities with no or limited social protection, poor working conditions, underemployment and many are in precarious self-employment and unprotected informal jobs. To address these challenges faced by African migrant workers, a number of initiatives are being implemented at the global, continental, regional and national levels to promote decent work, including the protection of workers’ rights, within and beyond Africa. Promoting decent work for migrant workers is critical to enhancing their contribution to the economic growth and development of their countries of origin and destination.

For the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the economic development of African countries and the achievement of structural transformation and industrialisation are closely linked to the creation of jobs, the protection of the livelihoods of small and medium-sized cross-border traders and the ability of young and skilled African workers to take advantage of available employment opportunities in other African countries. It is in line with the ambition of the AfCFTA and the vision of Agenda 2063 to facilitate the mobility of categories of people such as businessmen, entrepreneurs and investors who are essential for multi-country investment and job creation. Greater mobility will also benefit informal cross-border traders (ICBTs), seasonal workers and student migrants.

The IOM also notes that the AfCFTA is an important precursor to free movement, as it aims to promote “the movement of business people in over 54 countries”. The existence and success of the AfCFTA means that the concept of free movement of people would not be seen as alien and something to be ignored. The AfCFTA must be bold in its integration of this issue into its implementation.

Therefore, we need to ensure that the legal provisions in the AfCFTA are clear to strengthen the implementation of labour mobility and contribute to achieving the objectives of the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons. This will ensure that all workers crossing borders have the right to free movement of persons and respect for fundamental rights as defined in the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda. It will also facilitate, inter alia, the harmonisation of mutual recognition of professional qualifications and skills between states and the right to remuneration at the rate negotiated at country and sectoral level.

There is a continuing need for the African labour movement to develop a genuine strategy to ensure its effective contribution to the realisation of the continent’s transformative aspirations and to help defend and protect workers’ interests in the future, taking into account the challenges of globalisation.

The African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) affiliates at the confederation’s 2023 New Year School  in Lomé, Togo, took stock of the actions of trade unions in relation to the implementation of the AfCFTA and its impact on labour migration. The participants identified key elements to be taken into account and effective response strategies at the national, sub-regional, regional and continental levels. These will form the basis of concrete arguments and narratives that the trade union movement can use in seeking progressive and effective engagement on labour migration governance under the AfCFTA.


Outputs and Presentations  |  2023 ITUC-Africa New Year School (February 21-24)

New Year School Commission on Labour Migration Governance

New Year School Commission on Trade

LRS  National Centres Briefing on the AfCFTA

AfCFTA negotiations and implementation: State of play, key issues and timelines


Making the AfCFTA work for women


The African Labour Research and Education Institute (ALREI) is an independent research and education institute of the ITUC Africa. We support, stimulate and reinforce the African trade union movement.

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