Providing retirement benefit for migrant workers in West Africa
The plight of migrant workers in Nigeria and other West African states with little or no access to social protection and retirement benefits was recently brought to the fore by the International Social Security Association (ISSA), West African Regional Office and the National Pension Commission (PenCom). OMOBOLA TOLU-KUSIMO reports. Amidst the rising number of migrant workers due to the various bilateral and mul-tilateral agreements on the move-ment of people, goods and services across countries, the right to ensure protection for migrant workers has remained a challenge in the West-African sub-region. Indeed, the growing pace of eco-nomic globalisation has created more migrant workers than ever be-fore. Unemployment and increasing poverty have prompted many people in developing countries to seek work elsewhere, while developed coun-tries have increased their demand for labour, especially unskilled la-bour. As a result, millions of workers and their families travel to coun-tries other than their own to find work. According to the United Nations, 230 million people, that is, more than 3 percent of the world’s population lived and worked outside their coun-try of birth in 2011, as opposed to 75 million or 2.3 percent in 1965. At present there are approximately 175 million migrants around the world, roughly half of whom are workers. Migrant workers contribute to the economies of their host countries, and the remittances they send home help to boost the economies of their countries of origin.
Yet, they often enjoy little social protection and are vulnerable to exploitation.
Worried by this wave, the National Pension Commission (PenCom) and the International Social Security As-sociation (ISSA), West African Region-al Office recently organised a meeting in Abuja to guaranty the protection and portability of benefits of workers across the West African sub-region.
The occasion was the meeting of the migrant workers working group in Ni-geria held recently and it focused on identifying ways that would ensure the provision of retirement benefits for every migrant worker in the sub-region, facilitate the transfer of these benefits as and when due and provide adequate protection to the pension as-sets of this class of workers.
At the end of deliberations by all stakeholders, a draft working docu-ment was produced to help address most if not all social security chal-lenges associated with migrant work-ers across African sub-region.
According to the National Pension Commission, the region has witnessed an annual average growth rate of 1.8 percent in the number of migrant workers between 2005 and 2010, which proportionally represented 2.8 percent of the total population of the sub-re-gion.
In an address by the Director-Gener-al of PenCom, Mr. Muhammed Ahmad recalled that Nigeria introduced the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) in 2004 that allowed employees of both the public and private sectors to open Retirement Savings Accounts (RSA) in which they accumulate assets for payment of pension after they retire from employments.
He stressed that the system made it possible to isolate the pension as-sets of every registered contributor right from inception.
According to him, retirees have the option of procuring Programmed Withdrawal or purchasing Life An-nuity as a way of accessing their re-tirement benefits from their RSAs.
He, however, stated that while mi-grant workers are allowed to trans-fer the full content of their RSAs to their countries of choice on retire-ment, there are challenges that has made this difficult. He said, “It is well known that many pension schemes are not as flexible.
Thus, portability of the re-tirement benefits of migrant may not be possible. Indeed in some cas-es, the workers are employed as con-tract staff with contract salaries that are slightly higher than the benefits of the employees that could benefit from some form of pension arrange-ments. The former employees are not entitled to any retirement ben-efits.
This bias has since been cor-rected in Nigeria by the introduction of the CPS, which allows every em-ployee to register an RSA and have his or her retirement benefits remit-ted on monthly basis.“This step taken by Nigeria solved not only the above problems and oth-er logistics associated with retire-ment benefits, but also generated a pool of log term funds for economic development.
“So far, about N2.6tn, equivalent to over $16bn has been generated under the scheme and had been in-vested in various sectors of the economy. The scheme had created institutional investors and gener-ated direct employment as well as provided business opportunities to third party service providers.”
He urged the participants from other West African countries to ful-ly explore the experiences of other jurisdiction in handling the subject matter and try to come up with solu-tions that are workable for the coun-tries in West Africa even as he ask that their recommendations should not be unmindful of the various existing agreements between coun-tries in the sub-region, particularly.
He added that there is also the need to identify areas that require amendments in such bilateral and multilateral documents in order to facilitate the protection and por-tability of migrant workers retire-ment benefits.
Also speaking at the meeting, ECOWAS President, Mr. Kadre De-sire Ouedraogo stated that the ne-cessity of ensuring social protec-tion for migrant workers and the portability of their benefits has be-come increasingly imperative and the issues bothering on the rights of workers, integration, provision of social security and portability of benefits among member countries through the provision of enabling laws, enforcement and conducive working environment must be ad-dressed.
Minister of Labour and Produc-tivity, Mr. Emeka Wogu noted that various conventions and bilateral agreements notwithstanding, the protection of migrant workers’ rights remains a significant chal-lenge, especially for workers in the informal and unregulated sectors of the economy such as domestic work and those involved in forced labour.
He said, “Migrant workers with irregular status are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in work.
“Areas of concern include threat or physical harm to the worker; re-striction of movement and confine-ment to the workplace or to a limited area; debt bondage; withholding of payment or excessive wage reduc-tions; retention of passports and identity documents; and threat of denunciation to the immigration authorities where the worker has an irregular immigration status.
As labour mobility increases, these concerns are likely to become even more acute for low-skilled and ir-regular migrants.”Wogu pointed out that the initia-tive by the ISSA Liaison Office to address the course of migrant work-ers is a welcome development as it would engender a common position on the issue of social protection for migrant workers and the portability of their benefits among West Afri-can countries.
The problem with bilateral arrange-ments he said, lies in the fact that such arrangements can put West African countries in a delicate position as some of the provisions of these arrangements may run contrary to the ECOWAS proto-col on free movement of persons, goods and services.
Besides, some transiting migrants could be stranded as a result of contra-dictory provisions in the bilateral ar-rangements and the ECOWAS protocol, he added.
In his view, “available documents such as Draft ECOWAS General Conven-tion on Social security of 1993, the 2006 ECOWAS Common Approach on Migra-tion, the ILO and UNO Conventions on various rights of migrant workers and the portability of their benefits should serve as working tools in coming up with a common position for West Africa states on the social protection of mi-grant workers and the portability of their Benefits”.