Temporary Labour Migration Schemes: Looking Beyond Countries of Destination

Ms. Marie-José L. Tayah

All views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the institutions with which she is affiliated.

1. Introduction

International debates provide simplified accounts of migration (Pécoud 2015, 9) that are grounded in legible and dichotomic typologies such as sending/receiving, forced/voluntary, temporary/permanent, skilled/unskilled, and regular/irregular migration (Pécoud 2015, 86). These narratives obscure the complexity of migration processes, and therefore deny policymakers and practioners the opportunity of designing comprehensive strategies that address the multifacetdness and many nuances of migration challenges (Pécoud 2015, 93).

Research and debates on temporary labour migration are not immune to this over-simplification. Research that examines the in-betweeness of temporary migration is nonetheless beginning to emerge. For example, Carrera and Korpela (2016) have challenged the unidirectionality of research on temporary labour migration (traditionally focused on south-north mobility) by examining the impact of temporary migration schemes in Asian and European countries in their capacity as countries of destination (i.e., Asia as destination for European temporary migrants and Europe as destination for Asian temporary migrants).

This blog points to three additional nuances that could be considered in examining the in-betweeness of temporary migration schemes. Scholars often single out countries of destination for designing temporary migration schemes that result in permanent migration under conditions of irregularity. This blog analyzes the shortcomings of temporary schemes in relation to the migration policies of countries of origin, transit and destination. This is done from the prism of research on migration for domestic work, which, in many parts of the world, is governed by temporary schemes.

2. Temporary migration gone awry: The responsibility of countries of origin, transit and destination

2.1 Promoting fair foreign employment policies in countries of origin

Countries of origin with an employment-driven emigration policy encourage the temporary migration of their nationals. Temporary migration is likely to lead to higher remittance transfers than migration policies that encourage permanent settlement (Dustmann and Mestres 2008). Further, immigrants with temporary return plans place a higher proportion of their savings in the home country and the share of assets and housing value accumulated in the home country is also larger (Dustmann and Mestres 2011).

Countries of origin interact with restrictive temporary migration at destination in one of two ways; (a) they legitimize and further the restrictiveness of these arrangements by competing amongst themselves over access to the labour markets at destination; and, (b) they impose bans on the deployment of their nationals to these countries to prevent abuse. Both these measures have proved ineffective (see rationale in 2.1.1. and 2.1.2.).

2.1.1. Preventing competition between countries of origin

To maximize the development potential of migration, countries of origin with employment-driven emigration policies compete amongst themselves over access to the labour markets in countries of destination. Competition legitimizes the temporary schemes and furthers these arrangements’ restrictiveness, pushing wages and working conditions down for all workers, including nationals, in a particular sector.

For example, when a number of Asian countries (like Indonesia) imposed bans on the deployment of their citizens for work in the domestic work sector of the Gulf States until certain protections were extended to their workers, Gulf countries turned to African countries for cheaper sources of labour. The bilateral agreement (BLA) between Saudi Arabia and Uganda, concluded in 2015, is a case in point. This BLA facilitates the access of one million college level education men and women to work in Saudi’s domestic work sector over a period of five years without addressing protection gaps for migrants.[1]

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has recently organized the first ever inter-regional tripartite dialogue on migrant domestic workers, bringing together constituents from Africa, the Arab States, and Asia. One of the recommendations of this dialogue was to place migrant domestic workers on the agenda of existing interregional dialogues spanning the Asia-Arab States migration corridor (e.g. the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the Colombo Process), and to extend participation in these fora to African countries of origin for migrant domestic workers. The other recommendation was to establish an interregional network (Africa, Arab States, and Asia) of experts, civil society organizations and trade unions with a view to help build a common position across regions on migration for domestic work.

2.1.2. Finding alternative protection measures to deployment bans

When countries of origin choose to sanction the abuses that result from restrictive temporary schemes at destination, they do so in the form of bans on the deployment of their nationals, particularly women, for work abroad.  Nepal announced a ban on women under the age of 30 from migrating to the Arab States for domestic work in 2012 before expanding the age ban in 2014 to all women seeking low-skilled employment abroad.[2] The ban did not stop migration. Instead, migration was undertaken irregularly via neighbouring India and Bangladesh. Moreover, migrant women did not attend pre-departure orientation sessions, a valuable source of information for ensuring their safe migration, and, as a result of exiting without their government’s pre-approval, were excluded from the benefits of private insurance and financial compensation in the case of accident or death at destination. Needless to say, the ban strengthened unlicensed migration agents operating out of villages and who are associated with deception, fraud and trafficking of women (Shrestha and Taylor-Nicholson 2015).

The same scenario is applicable to migrants from other countries like Ethiopia and Madagascar where bans on the deployment of citizens are also in effect. The Government of Ethiopia imposed a total ban on the deployment of Ethiopian men and women low skilled workers in 2013. The Government of Madagascar also issued a temporary deployment ban to Lebanon in 2010 and another to the Gulf Countries in 2013. Instead, Ethiopians now rely on informal brokers who operate over land via Somalia, Djibouti and Somaliland and over sea to Yemen and then to Saudi Arabia (Fernandez 2011, 444; De Regt 2007). Private employment agencies in Madagascar arrange travel through a transit country, such as Kenya, and from there the women continue their onward journey to Beirut. In the course of their circuitous routes, migrants are at increased risk of human trafficking and exploitation.

Deployment bans are ineffective in the absence of decent work opportunities in the countries of origin. Poverty and the loss of livelihoods contrive women to migrate through irregular channels with the help of unregistered and unlicensed brokers who are accountable to no one. On arrival, migrants are admitted by countries of destination irrespective of the bans. There, they fall outside the protection of national laws as well as those of their home country. Repatriation is also complicated by their inability to pay the penalties accumulated as a result of their working without permits and circumventing official exit channels in the country of origin (Tayah and Atnafu 2016).

Alternatives to bans include promoting the ratification of migrant worker conventions and treaties, negotiating enforceable employment contracts that protect the rights of migrant workers in receiving countries, strengthening the capacity of labour attachés to monitor the living and working conditions of migrant workers, improving access to justice for workers, and promoting women empowerment policies in sending countries such as access to rights and entitlements, freedom from gender-based violence, and access to education and programmes that enhance employability (Bosc 2016).

2.2. Heeding de facto temporary labour migration in transit

An often overlooked temporary employment arrangement for migrants occurs in transit countries. This is a de facto temporary arrangement, a form of nested temporariness in the context of a longer migration journey to a destination where de jure temporary schemes (such as the Kafala system in the Arab States) apply.

Migrants pass through transit countries to finance their travel to more attractive countries of destination, for lack of appropriate documentation, and for their inability to meet the requirements of the intended country of destination (Hugo 2014, 2). Deployment bans are another reason why migrants transit through neighbouring countries, especially where open border policies are in effect between the origin and transit countries.

While their intention might be to transit briefly, migrants are in many cases compelled to stay in the transit for months or even years taking on employment in the informal sector.[3]  A study examining the transit migration of 30 Ethiopian women found that the latter engaged in informal employment in transit countries as domestic workers, saleswomen, cleaners, sex workers – sometimes in the form of food-for-work in place of wages – for periods extending between six and 24 months before continuing their journey (Tayah and Atnafu 2016).

Given the employment dimension of transit migration, it is important to engage transit countries in dialogues bringing together countries of origin and destination on labour migration. Trade unions in transit countries are central to these dialogues. In their collaboration with trade unions in countries of origin and destination they can secure that migrants have access to information about their migration journey and can provide them with legal recourse. With support from the ILO, a declaration was signed by trade unions and domestic workers’ organizations from South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe in 2014. The declaration commits signatories to support the strategies promoting human and labour rights of migrant domestic workers along the Zimbabwe-Lesotho-South Africa migration corridor.

2.3. Promoting migration policies that take into consideration labour market needs at destination

Destination countries opt for temporary schemes to meet care demands while avoiding potential economic and societal problems connected with migrants’ long-term societal integration. Nonetheless, the absence of decent work opportunities at origin and the growing demand for domestic workers and household care workers at destination produce permanent migration under conditions of irregularity.

The demand for home-based paid care and domestic work is growing. Working families across the world are facing difficulties in combining paid work with family responsibilities. This is the result of an increase in women’s employment. There were 1.27 billion women in the labour market in 2015 having to combine family and care responsibilities. At the same time, rapid population ageing, increasing life expectancy and lower fertility rates are putting a strain on traditional care arrangements; The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) estimates that there will be 20 young people for every 100 adults by 2050 (Tayah 2016).

Given the demographic transformations and the tight fiscal policies and social policy budgets that have weakened public care services, it is important to design migration policies at destination that take into account long-term care needs and on this basis, decide whether to prioritize temporary labour migration or migration channels which lead to permanent settlement (Tayah 2016). Belgium, for example, has made the admission of migrant domestic workers conditional on labour market tests.

3. Conclusion

There are inherent risks in temporary migration schemes. Designing and implementing fair migration policies requires cooperation between all countries concerned (origin, transit and destination). More specifically, (a) concertation among different countries of origin, including between the social partners in these countries, is important to avoid a race to bottom in the working and living conditions of workers from different nationalities; (b) transit countries must heed the employment dimension of migration which is largely informal, adding to vulnerability of migrants; and, (c) countries of destination must ensure that admission and post-admission policies respond to established labour market needs, while respecting the principle of equal treatment between migrants and national workers.


Bosc, Igor. 2016. Policy brief: Women’s Mobility and Domestic Work. New Delhi: ILO.

Carrera, Sergio, and Mari Korpela. 2016. Transnational migration in transit: Preliminary findings of EURA-NET Project (discussion paper prepared for the side event “Temporary migration and workers’ rights: Comparing EU-Asia Experiences and Perspectives” on the margins of the Human Rights Council on 13 June 2016, Geneva.

De Regt, Marina. 2007. Ethiopian women in the Middle East: The case of migrant domestic workers in Yemen, Paper presented at the African Studies Centre seminar, 15 February 2007, University of Amsterdam, www.ascleiden.nl/Pdf/paper-deregt.pdf [accessed on 13 April 2016].

Dustmann, Christian, and Josep Mestres. 2008. Remittances and temporary migration. Paper by the University College London and Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM ).

Dustmann, Christian and Josep Mestres. 2011. Savings, asset holdings, and temporary migration. Discussion Paper No. 5498 (Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA)).

Fernandez, B. 2011. “Household help? Ethiopian women domestic workers’ labor migration to the Gulf countries”, in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal (2011, Vol. 20, No. 3-4).

Pécoud, Antoine. 2015. Depoliticizing migration: Global governance and international migration narratives. London: Palgrave, Macmillan.

Shrestha, Jebli, and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson. 2015. No easy exit – Migration bans affecting women from Nepal. Geneva: ILO.

Tayah, Marie-José, and Adamnesh Atnafu. 2016. Promoting and protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers in transit: The case of Ethiopian women migrants. Geneva: ILO.

Tayah, Marie-José. 2016. Decent work for migrant domestic workers: Moving the agenda forward. Geneva: ILO.

[1] The BLA was soon followed by a ban on the deployment of Ugandan workers to Saudi Arabia due to the number of abuses reported.

[2] A new directive, in 2015, reopened regular migration channels for women migrant domestic workers, 24 years of age and older, wishing to work in certain destination countries in the Arab States and South-East Asia.

[3] Where employment can be hazardous and undignified and where labour protections do not extend to them, especially where they are in irregular status. Most importantly, the employment of women and girl migrants in-transit can be restricted to precarious and gendered forms of work, including being vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.