On 18 January 2023, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that those who wanted to apply their skills were welcome in Germany. In March, Business Insider’s Chinedu Okafor reported that Kenya and Germany were “negotiating an agreement that would allow Kenyans to fill around 250,000 unfilled positions in Germany”. The agreement aims to facilitate the migration of professionals, skilled workers and semi-skilled Kenyans to Germany. Four months later, the German Chancellor fulfilled his promise and visited Kenya on May 6, where he signed a workforce deal with Kenya’s President William Ruto.

Under the agreement, Germany is prepared to absorb a significant number of 250,000 professional, skilled and semi-skilled Kenyan workers. The agreement also establishes a framework for connecting Kenyan technical and vocational training (TVET) colleges with select TVET colleges in Germany, aiming to promote labour migration from Kenya to Germany following graduation. 

At the time, Ruto stated, “To bridge the language barrier, we agreed to introduce the teaching and learning of German in basic education institutions, TVETs and other higher education institutions.” In exchange, Germany agreed to provide Kenyans with teacher training support. It also pledged to provide funding and expand and modernise Kenya’s TVET institutions and centres of excellence from three to seven, a move that is expected to benefit more Kenyan youth and reduce unemployment. 

For years, German companies had been warning of a ticking time bomb at the heart of Europe’s largest economy: a shortage of skilled workers in areas like IT and technology, medical care, contractor fields, technology and logistics. Germany is facing a labour crisis due to having Europe’s oldest population. There is a substantial gap between Germans born between 1950 and 1970 and those born in the 1990s, who are roughly half the number of their older counterparts. This demographic disparity is causing a major drain on Germany’s pension and social insurance funds. 

Over the next thirteen years, thirteen million German workers will leave the labour market. There are simply not enough Germans to fill these positions, which is why Germany needs an average of 400,000 migrant workers each year. Consequently, the shortage of skilled labour has long been a source of anxious debate, but it recently gained momentum as Germany’s economy is faced with even more crises, especially since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Companies across various sectors stated that they were struggling to find the workers they required and that the situation was deteriorating. 

The German government believed that immigration was one of the solutions. Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, passed a revised Skilled Immigration Act in the summer of 2023 to expedite the inflow of skilled workers from outside the EU. The new regulations were implemented in three phases, with the first changes taking effect on 18 November 2023.

Despite its efforts to attract skilled workers, Foreign Policy Magazine’s Paul Hockenos claims that Germany remains less appealing than other countries like New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland due to a preference for refugees from war-torn countries.

It is against this background that the two equally desperate partners concluded the workforce deal. Germany has gripping labour shortages necessitating the importation of migrants. Due to low economic growth and high unemployment, Kenya is desperate to export its growing unemployment problem overseas under the guise of collecting remittances. Nairobi previously banned labour exports to Middle Eastern countries due to the exploitative kafala system. Uganda also contemplates doing the same.

In 2023, Kenya expressed its intention to sign ten bilateral labour agreements with countries seeking to employ Kenyan workers. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, plus Canada and the US,were among the potential suitors. This initiative aimed to create overseas job opportunities and boost remittances sent back to Kenya. However, human rights activist Viviane Wandera expressed concern that Kenya “risks pushing its citizens into ‘modern slavery’with overseas jobs drive”.

Among African countries, Kenya is not alone in employing unconventional means to address its economic woes. Together with Malawi and Tanzania, Nairobi has been reported to have finalised bilateral labour agreements with war-torn Israel. Tel Aviv is equally eager to recruit foreign workers for its agricultural, construction, and home care industries following the dismissal of its Palestinian workforce in the years leading up to the political upheaval on October 7 in the Gaza Strip.

Kenya and Germany: An unequal and exploitative relationship

Kenya is Germany’s most important commercial partner in East Africa. However, President Ruto lamented the fact that the trade balance between the two countries heavily favours Germany. Ruto stated that Kenya’s exports to Germany in 2021 amounted to only USD 130 million, while imports from Germany totalled USD 392 million. He also urged the Chancellor to review tariff barriers and facilitate access to both German and European markets for Kenyan goods in light of the trade imbalance.

Besides labour migration, the two countries unavoidably discussed trade imbalance and migration issues. Kenya additionally requested Germany’s assistance in concluding negotiations on the East African Community-European Union Economic Partnership Agreement. Furthermore, it was reported that Nairobi persuaded Berlin to reconsider and ease immigration restrictions so that Kenyans could work in Germany. 

The Germany-Kenya relationship underscores the persistent recurrence of historical misgivings that remain unresolved in the so-called modern international system. These issues shed light on the ongoing power imbalances and historical injustices between the wealthier Global North and poor Third World countries. A combination of factors, including trade marginalisation, discriminatory migration policies, and political influence, cast doubt on the fairness and intentions of labour agreements between developed and African countries.

Bilateral labour agreements push developing countries into aneconomic abyss

International organisations, such as IOM and ILO, advocate for bilateral labour agreements as a way to regulate temporary low-skilled migration programmes and address issues like labour exploitation and human trafficking. However, some observers remain sceptical about the effectiveness of these agreements, arguing that they primarily benefit receiving countries. When a country like Germany targets qualified Kenyans, it effectively encourages brain drain and undermines Kenya’s social and economic prospects in the long run.

In Africa, despite being recognised for its economic growth and hosting rapidly advancing economies, there is a noticeable mismanagement of the continent’s youth potential. A troubling statistic from a 2022 African Youth Survey conducted in fifteen African countries reveals that 52% of young adults in Africa are contemplating relocating to foreign countries in the next three years. 

This figure significantly rises to an alarming 75% in Nigeria and Sudan, highlighting the widespread aspiration among African youth to seek opportunities outside their home countries. The pressing issue is exacerbated by high youth unemployment rates in many African nations, creating a conducive environment for the economic exploitation of the continent’s young population, especially the skilled and semi-skilled.

Notwithstanding efforts to promote fair trade, developing countries still face barriers to accessing global markets due to discriminatory practices, protectionism and unfair subsidies by developed countries. Germany’s approach to Kenya for its most precious resource undercuts the East African country’s chances of reaping the benefits of its human resources and workforce. People are a necessary ingredient in developing vibrant industries and economies that can compete successfully at a global level.

The upcoming WTO Trade Ministers Meeting in Abu Dhabi should provide an opportunity for developing countries to advocate for reforms to address these issues. The meeting’s focus will be on reforming the dispute settlement system, enforcing the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement, advancing agricultural talks and delivering on the development agenda to maintain developing countries’ trust in the organisation. Unfortunately, toxic bilateral labour agreements(a poaching technique) will not even be on the agenda, despite their ramifications on trade relations. 

It also looks like developing countries use their political might to decide what constitutes ‘free movement of people’ and often directs its anti-migration stance at Africans and other non-whites. The EU has migration agreements with several countries, including Belarus, Morocco, Libya and Turkey, to keep out unwanted migrants. However, migration is a fiercely contested issue across the EU and EFTA states (Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).

In December 2023, the EU finalised an agreement on reforms aimed at redistributing the financial burden of hosting migrants and refugees while also implementing measures to control the influx of individuals into the bloc. This agreement marked the conclusion of years of deliberation on the need to revamp the EU’s outdated asylum rules. The reforms entail a solidarity mechanism to alleviate the burden on southern EU countries facing significant migrant inflows.

Human rights NGOs have raised concerns about the potential consequences of the EU’s migration laws, which include relocating refugees and migrants, tighter rules on asylum qualification and centralising strategies for handling sudden influxes of people. They argue that the new migration package could lead to increased discrimination and racial profiling against black or minority ethnic EU citizens.

Bilateral labour agreements are gaining importance as antitrust regulators across the globe intensify their focus on competition enforcement in the labour market. The European Commission and national authorities have acted against companies engaging in anticompetitive hiring practices like ‘no-poach’ agreements and wage-fixing. These agreements restrict worker mobility, hinder market entry and reduce bargaining power, potentially leading to lower wages. 

Unfortunately, there are no anti-market rules for global labour markets in the international system, particularly in the WTO or even the ILO, that regulate the poaching strategies of developed countries that work against developing countries. This indicates a regulatory gap in the international system that must be closed to protect emerging economies and their human resources, on whom they spend a fortune to develop. Developing countries must be compensated for the talent they lose to developed countries.