President William Ruto, during a church service in Bomet on November 20, 2023, announced plans to export about 3,000 to 5,000 Kenyans to work abroad weekly. He believes this initiative will address several issues facing the country, including unemployment and declining foreign investments.
According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s labor force grew by 3.6 percentage points to 24,985,164 people in 2022 from 24,116,304 in 2021. This growth does not account for aspects like underemployment. Approximately 1.4 million people are unemployed, resulting in a 5.5% unemployment rate. This issue is expected to worsen with the increasing number of graduates entering the job market.
The president’s announcement has generated both applause and skepticism, sparking debates among economists and scholars about the pros and cons of labor exportation. While the benefits to the countries receiving the labor are generally agreed upon, opinions vary on the advantages for the exporting country.
Examining the potential advantages of labor exportation, the China Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) serves as a notable example. Launched in 2013, the BRI is a vast infrastructure and economic development project involving collaboration between China and multiple countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa. In 2022, there were 592,000 Chinese workers overseas in the program.
The initiative’s success lies in strategic planning and meticulous implementation, emphasizing the diversification of skills and expertise. China exports a range of professionals, including engineers, technicians, and project managers, rather than relying solely on unskilled labor. Kenya must identify its niche to make a significant economic, diplomatic, and social impact when sending labor abroad.
However, a major downside of such programs is the challenge associated with worker exploitation and modern-day slavery. The United States’ Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons reported issues such as forced labor, contract irregularities, threats, and poor working conditions among employees in similar programs. Reports of similar challenges in the Middle East to foreign workers are also prevalent. To address these concerns, Kenya must sign strong bilateral agreements with recipient countries, outlining clear terms and conditions of work. Additionally, a more stringent regulatory framework, monitoring, oversight, and a transparent complaints resolution mechanism should be established, along with robust engagements and feedback.
While labor exportation has the potential to alleviate unemployment and increase remittances, injecting foreign currency into the economy, strategic planning and learning from successful models like China’s BRI are crucial for Kenya to reap the desired benefits.
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