Rights Of Migrant Workers Take Center Stage Amidst COVID-19 Emergency Measures

By Ene Okon

It was not a speech making day but an occasion where concrete pronouncement were made on institutionalizing the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant workers in Nigeria.

This aptly describes a webinar recently organized by the Abuja Office of the International Labour Organisation, ILO.
The webinar with the theme: impact of Covid-19 on the rights of migrant workers in Nigeria, was aimed at engaging with policymakers on the level of protection and promotion of migrant workers’ rights amid concerns of Covid-19 in Nigeria, to highlight the nexus between labour migration, Covid-19 and rights of migrant workers and to raise awareness on good practices and available support mechanisms in place for protecting human and labour rights of migrant workers in the country.

Responding to questions on some salient issues raised during the interactive session at the webinar, Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige says the federal government will invoke the wrath of the law against employers who violates the rights of their employees under the guise of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Dr. Chris Ngige

Dr Ngige noted that it was wrong for employers to cut the salaries of employees or terminate their appointments without holding negotiations with the workers to see reason why such measures became inevitable. While calling on the Nigerian Employers Consultative Forum, NECA to report erring employers to his ministry, the labour minister also announced plans to review licenses of labour outsourcing firms to ensure that workers are not exposed to indecent work conditions.

The minister further expressed concern that over 60 percent of the labour force are in the informal sector saying that there was need to formalize as many as the informal sector so that they can be captured for any intervention from the government.

In his presentations, the Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission, Tony Ojukwu said Nigeria is a signatory to the international conventions on the rights of migrant and therefore the need to abide by its provision even during emergency situations like the Covid-19 pandemic that has negatively impacted on the socio-economic fabric of the globe.

“Any emergency response to Covid-19 must be carried out in strict accordance with international Human Rights standard, including the convention on migrant workers. Such response must integrate migrant workers into the national Covid-19 prevention and response plans and policies including ensuring their access to health services”. Ojukwu said, adding that migrants should be allowed to go home if they choose to do so.

On her part, the Director General, National Agency for the Prohibition in Trafficking of Persons, NAPTIP Julie Okah-Donli expressed worry that most migrant workers in the informal sector are exposed to loss of jobs due to Covid 19 and therefore the need for a data on those who lost their jobs so as to give them social protection cover. Okah-Donli further urged all stakeholders to cooperate in guaranteeing the rights of migrants so as to prevent them from falling victims of human traffickers.

“Those in the informal sector have suffered job losses and lack of social protection during the lockdown, even with the easing of the lockdown there is no guarantee that many of them will retain their jobs. There is an urgent need to compile a register for these workers who have lost their jobs to enable government take adequate measures for the protection of their rights and provide economic safety nets for them. Many of these workers are going to be vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers and urgent steps need to be taken to secure their rights. Businesses should be encouraged to take out payroll insurance to protect their workers in crisis situations such as this”. The NAPTI DG was quoted as saying.

Also speaking, Nigeria Country Director, Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho emphasised the need to harmonise domestic and international provisions on the rights of indigenous and migrant workers so as to address the ambiguity as to the rights ascribed to nationals and non-nationals. She discouraged the imposition of penalty for violation of Covid 19 guidelines and advocated for intensification of knowledge about the disease and post penalty.
In her contribution, the ILO Regional Labour Migration and Mobility Specialist, Gloria Chammartin drew attention to the deplorable condition of migrants in detention facilities where some of them are being infected. Chammartin called for social protection, capacity building and labour reintegration of migrant and returnee migrant workers. She further urged African Nations to have a common position on International Labour Standard as well as to strengthen the capacity of their embassies/consular office to handle migration issues.

Speaking earlier, Director -General of NECA, Dr. Timothy Olawale urged employers not to consider laying off and salary cut as an immediate option to cope with the negative impact of Covid-19 while General Secretary, Nigerian Labour Congress, Emmanuel Ugboaja emphasised the need to protect the rights of migrant workers and to carry them along in palliative measures to cushion the impact of covid 19.

In his remarks, the Director of ILO Abuja Office, Dennis Zulu expressed optimism that issues raised at the webinar will lead concrete action towards protecting all categories of employees including migrant and returnee migrant workers.

It was indeed a consensus among stakeholders at the webinar that there was need for nations to take concrete steps to safeguard the rights of migrant workers at all times as they play a crucial role in the development of their host country and nation of origin.

It is worthy to note that Nigeria has gone ahead of other nations with a National policy on Labour Migration. The mission is to provide an appropriate framework at national level to regulate Labour migration; to ensure benefits to Nigeria as a country of origin, transit and destination; to ensure decent treatment of migrants and their families, and to contribute to development and national welfare.

The Vision is to build an effective, responsive and dynamic labour migration governance system in Nigeria. Many are however worried that this policy is yet to be translated into more concrete reality to reap the full benefits thereof. It is hoped that with the concerns raised, the country will overhaul existing system and introduce more to fully entrench an effective and efficient Labour migration governance.

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