NAIROBI — Workers in Kenya’s informal sector are worried about losing jobs and opportunities after President William Ruto’s announcement that the East African country would allow visa-free access to all African citizens by the end of this year.
An influx of workers from neighboring countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo to Kenya over the past few years has already caused tensions with locals as migrant workers are generally considered more affordable by employers.
Many migrants, mostly from East African countries, work in Kenya’s informal sector in a broad range of jobs such as domestic staff, construction, and hairdressing. Several people in the informal sector who spoke to Semafor Africa raised concerns that Ruto’s latest declaration would impact their livelihoods.
“We don’t have a problem with them [foreigners]. They are our brothers,” said John Kamau, a porter in Nairobi’s Eastleigh business hub. “But when it comes to business it’s bad for us because business owners would rather hire them because they charge less.”
James Omune, a boda boda motorcycle taxi rider, complained that riders mostly from Rwanda and Burundi, had already “taken over” the boda boda trade in his neighborhood of Syokimau, in southern Machakos county. He expressed concern that Ruto’s decision would lead to a further influx of migrants driving increased competition for customers.
Operators of matatus — private minibuses — are locked in a fierce competition in parts of Nairobi, such as Dagoretti Road, with Burundians who drive TukTuk motorized rickshaws. “They feel they are taking their customers and their fares are cheaper,” said Nairobi resident and taxi driver John Ouma. “I hope it doesn’t get worse now.”
Speaking at a climate conference in Congo Brazzaville on Oct. 28, Ruto stated that visa restrictions were a major hindrance to intra-African trade and needed to be done away with.
“When people cannot travel, businesspeople cannot travel, entrepreneurs cannot travel, we all become net losers,” he said.
Costly and time-consuming visa processes are among the biggest barriers for intra-African trade and travel. For 47% of intra-African travel, African citizens need a visa before traveling, according to the 2022 Visa Openness Index by the Africa Development Bank (AfDB).
While things are improving it is still expected to be easier for a North American or European passport holder to travel between African countries than for an African passport holder.
Many business owners in Kenya are open to hiring migrant workers as it is widely thought they can generally pay them less than their Kenyan counterparts. However, this also creates opportunities for migrants to be exploited.
Recruitment agencies in Kenya in particular have become notorious for exploiting and, in some cases, scamming, desperate jobseekers. Migrant workers in Kenya are likely to face these challenges especially with employers who see an opportunity to cut their costs.
“To some extent they [employers] are capitalizing on desperation; because they see these workers really want to make money here to support their people back home, they don’t have options like Kenyans who can easily quit if frustrated,” said Joyce Chemutai, who runs a recruitment agency for domestic workers in Nairobi. She told Semafor Africa that many prospective employers specifically request for workers from Uganda, thanks to a widespread belief that they are dedicated to their jobs and cheaper to hire than their Kenyan counterparts.
An influx of migrant workers could also fuel existing tensions with local workers, many of whom are grappling with frustration over high unemployment and the cost of living.
Enabling the creation of adequate job opportunities should be a top priority for Ruto’s administration if it is to avoid social tensions and conflict similar to the situation in South Africa, where the presence of migrant workers from other African countries has been a hot-button political issue for well over a decade. Not only are many locals vocal about their opposition to the presence of foreigners but there have also been violent xenophobic protests and attacks on property owned by African migrants.
It’s notable that only three countries on the continent currently offer visa-free access for all Africans — Benin, Seychelles and the Gambia, all very small economies perhaps unlikely to face a huge influx of migrants looking for work. But it also could be the start of a broader positive trend. Days after Ruto’s announcement, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame on Nov. 2, also announced that the country would offer visa-free access to all Africans.
Room for Disagreement
Bolaji Sofoluwe, managing director of ETK Group, a company which helps businesses expand across Africa, told Semafor Africa that Kenya’s economy would benefit in the long term from having migrant workers. But she said the country needed to be deliberate about harnessing skills, intellectual property and capital for the benefits of intra-African trade, including job creation, to trickle down to regular Kenyans. “Movement of people needs to be accompanied by movement of goods and services,” she said. “Once you have better industrialization, commercial capital and entities within these markets, that would bolster the availability of jobs.”
The View From kampala
Many domestic workers from Uganda come to Kenya in search of higher incomes, and some employers’ preference for Ugandan workers has caused tensions with local workers. They, however, also face higher risk of abuse and exploitation in Kenya according to a January 2023 report by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.
“Due to their isolation and lack of knowledge, Ugandan domestic workers in Kenya are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation. Ugandan workers in Kenya reported being threatened with violence, being verbally abused, and being threatened with dismissal at higher rates than workers in Uganda.”
Highlighting the challenges adult migrant workers in Kenya face, the report noted that many Ugandan domestic workers in Kenya lack documentation including work permits, affecting their ability to be protected by Kenya’s labor laws.