Migrant labour for development?

In 2007, the World Bank recorded an estimated $240 billion in remittances from migrant workers, a huge jump from $31.2 billion in 1990. Now, the figure is in excess of $300 billion per annum, well over twice the amount of official development aid.

The biggest recipients of remittances are India and China, each raking in over $50 billion annually. Incidentally, these two countries have experienced some of the most impressive economic growth figures in recent years. Remittances flows to developing countries are growing in double digits. So, perhaps there is some merit in exporting labour.

The ongoing debate in the media and most recently in the National Assembly, however, seems to scorn any benefits arising from the proposed export of youth labour to South Korea.

Remittances from migrant labour may rightly be condemned for a number of ills such as encouraging laziness among recipients; brain drain arising from loss of skilled or educated personnel for whom the country has invested time effort and money; it may also worsen income distribution and even lead to a stronger kwacha from increased forex inflows.

Nevertheless, it is inescapable that in a democratic society, workers—whether skilled or unskilled—will forever be mobile and no government can successfully prevent this. Remittances from migrant labour may also increase household incomes of the poor and increase consumer demand, thereby creating more local jobs. Unskilled workers may return to their home countries with new skills acquired abroad.  The banking industry will tremendously benefit with more under-banked and unbanked groups coming on stream. You just have to harness this resource and leverage the various advantages that are not being highlighted in political podiums and social commentaries.

So, perhaps what should really be a matter of debate is the policy response to ensure that remittances are channelled in productive investments, are sent through official channels and encourage financial institutions to offer incentives to migrants in host countries to remit to their home countries.  In addition, it is important for government to enact necessary legislation to set the framework and standards for foreign firms recruiting or local institutions exporting local labour and provide the requisite institutional set-up for registration, monitoring and enforcement of migrant labour. 

With the country’s population close to 15 million people, the carrying capacity of our agro-based economy is creaking. If evidence is required for this, we need to look around at the escalating environmental degradation; and the resulting dwindling crop yields requiring an ever-expanding fertiliser subsidy budget which can hardly be touted as a sustainable economic model. It is, therefore, unrealistic to deny those who choose to take advantage of an existing economic opportunity such as migrant labour, irrespective of who negotiated such an opportunity, on the basis of political capital. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it is idle to talk of exporting labour where there are no jobs. Unfortunately, one can search in vain for job creation initiatives promoted by our politicians to arrest growing income discrepancies of those who are less fortunate or less skilled; save perhaps in political manifestos that are routinely honoured in breach.

In conclusion, for those seeking a better standard of living for their families, development opportunities through migrant labour remittances is a good option. Parliament should propose measures to harness this opportunity and to protect these Malawians from exploitation.n

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