Ethiopian Labour Migration Landscape: Trends, Challenges, and Approaches to improving labour migration governance in the country

News | 25 September 2023

MoU negotiation between Ethiopia and Jordan for the protection of Ethiopian migrant workers

Ethiopia is a country of origin, transit, and destination and remains to be a country for mixed migration flows in the Horn of Africa, which presents a range of multidimensional challenges. The 2021 labour force and migration survey reported that 17.1 percent of the population (not including Tigray region) are migrants, where female (19.1 percent) tend to migrate more frequently than males (15.1percent). The ILO report also highlighted that unemployment, poverty and political factors drives outward Ethiopian migrants, which largely entails low-skilled labour migration, such as domestic work, to the Middle East. Similarly, as of August 2023, Ethiopia is the third largest refugee hosting country in Africa with 942,000 refugees and asylum seekers originating from the IGAD region. Finally, migrants from the region also cross Ethiopia to travel to Sudan and Libya, in route to Europe, and may work informally in Ethiopia to fund their onward journey. In July 2023, the Ethiopian Prime Minister revealed that various countries have requested to employ up to 2 million Ethiopian nationals. Similarly, in early 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) resumed the recruitment of Ethiopian domestic workers, marking a significant shift after a three-year hiatus in employing Ethiopian domestic workers.


The movement from Ethiopia to Gulf countries and South Africa is largely irregular, leading to great perils for Ethiopian migrants, with approximately 95% of Ethiopian migrants initially entering South Africa through irregular means and later formalising their status. Significant number of Ethiopian migrate using irregular route, entering or residing in destination countries without possessing the requisite documentation. The ILO 2018 Baseline survey conducted for the “Improved Labour Migration Governance to Protect Migrant Workers and Combat Irregular Migration in Ethiopia project found that most Ethiopian workers do not have proper documentation (passport, visa, and work permit) while working abroad. These migrants encounter a multitude of obstacles, such as human trafficking, abuse and exploitation during their journeys and upon reaching their host countries. The same report also identified 72 percent of the migrant workers and returned migrants respondents could be characterized as enduring a forced labour situation while working abroad.

Most migrants in irregular status are recruited by local brokers, returnees, relatives, and/or friends. To this end, informal brokers and agents offer potential migrants false promises of good financial revenues that will enable them escape poverty and change the lives of their families. As a result, migrants do not get correct and adequate information to make informed decision about their migration before their departure, nor are they given the opportunity to discuss the terms and conditions of their future jobs with their employer or recruiter. Moreover, due to their irregular status in destination countries, most migrant workers face numerous challenges, such as, long working hours without rest and overtime pay, confiscation of passport, lack of freedom of association, irregular payment of salary or no payment at all. At times, they are also exposed to verbal, physical and sexual violence and abuse and have limited access to legal and social protection.

Some regular Ethiopian migrants, also face the same challenges as migrants in irregular status, while not always exposed to the same immediate dangers as irregular migrants. However, they also encounter significant disadvantages related to skill gaps. The lack of skills or qualifications recognized by destination countries often forces migrants into under employment and low-paying as well as low-skilled jobs, perpetuating a cycle of economic vulnerability and limited upward mobility. This not only hampers their ability to secure higher-paying positions, but also contributes to exploitation by unscrupulous employers who take advantage of their limited options.


If governed well, migration offers a range of benefits to both country of origin and destination as well as to migrant workers and their families. For the country of origin, these advantages include remittances that boost the economy and living standards, skills and knowledge transfer that can bolster industries, unemployment reduction and improved labour market flexibility. On the other hand, the destination country gains from economic growth through labour market contribution, address labour market imbalances, reduced labour and skills shortages, enhanced diversity, and cultural enrichment, addressing demographic challenges, and increased trade and investment facilitated by skilled migrants. Migrant workers and their families will also benefit from an improved socio-economic conditions and social inclusion as they would enjoy better access to services and secure better employment. A well-governed migration system can lead to stronger diplomatic ties between countries, fostering collaboration on various international issues. It can also contribute to the development of global networks, promoting cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. Additionally, by ensuring safe, regular and orderly migration, countries can reduce the prevalence of human trafficking and smuggling as well as forced labour and enhance the safety and well-being of migrants.

Government’s Action

Since the 80s, Ethiopians have been migrating to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Kuwait in pursuit of improved livelihood opportunities, mostly arranged by friends and families, in the last decade by local recruitment agencies or human traffickers & smugglers, which have heightened emigration from Ethiopia. In the last decade, the Government of Ethiopia has been facilitating labour migration for those who want to migrate and has taken proactive approaches in strengthening labour migration governance, to state a few:

Improving oversight, which involves developing overseas employment proclamation, enhancing the regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies, to ensure that they adhere to ethical and legal standards. This includes overseeing the entire process of overseas employment, including recruitment and pre-departure training, to safeguard the rights and well-being of Ethiopian migrant workers.

Strengthening data, Ethiopia has modernized and digitalized the Labour Market Information System (LMIS) in the country, including overseas employment data, through the Ethiopian Migrant Data Management System. In his visit of the LMIS in May 2023, the Ethiopian Prime Minister acknowledged the impactful role of the system in modernizing information management of citizens working abroad, ensuring protection of Ethiopian migrant workers and filling employment gaps.


Negotiating and signing bilateral labour agreements (BLAs) and Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) to improve protection of Ethiopian migrant workers and expanding the labour market horizon to include a more diverse scope of occupations and skill levels, including skilled and semi-skilled workers. Ethiopia has signed BLAs and MoUs with five destination nations, namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar, ushering in the possibility of organized, regular low-skilled, semi-skilled, and skilled labour migration to the Middle East. These are important tools for fostering cooperation and collaboration between Ethiopia and destination countries. Currently, negotiations for further BLAs are underway, with Ethiopia engaging in talks with Bahrain and Kuwait. These negotiations also aim to outline the necessary requisites for Ethiopian labour migrants to operate in these nations, as well as to provide comprehensive regulations for their working conditions. Ultimately, these efforts strive to safeguard the rights, protection, and overall welfare of Ethiopian migrant workers.

Improving skills of potential migrant workers. The government is providing pre-departure training in all the regions by TVTs. This pre-departure training aims to prepare migrant workers for the working and living conditions in destination countries by providing information consisting of host countries culture, labour law, language as well as health and safety regulations. Moreover, vocational training is also being provided focusing on housekeeping and essential job skills, with durations ranging from 6 to 21 days. Graduates and returning migrants will undergo a 6-day training, while individuals with lower levels of education will benefit from a more extensive 21-day training program. The Ministry of Labour and Skills is further revising its curriculums to better respond to the needs and interest of destination and ensure that Ethiopian migrant workers are competitive in the international labour market.

ILO’s support

In the Government’s effort to improve labour migration governance in the country, the ILO has been a key, consistent and trusted partner. The ILO has provided and continues to provide a range of support to the Ministry of Labour and Skills and its social partners to advance right based labour migration in Ethiopia. To state a few:
  • Strengthened interregional framework for the protection of migrant workers and supported intra-regional dialogue on labour migration.
  • Support the government in the development the overseas employment proclation.
  • Strengthened the capacity of policy makers, social partners, private employment agencies and national statistics bureaus on issues related to improving Labour Migration Governance.
  • Strengthened systems/functions to increase effectiveness of labour migration governance and data management by supporting the establishment of the Ethiopian Migrant Data Management System and now LMIS.
  • Improved knowledge base on labour migration issues to ensure evidence-based policy making in the country.
  • Improved social partner engagement in labour migration policy development and implementation.
  • Promote skills, qualification, and prior learning recognition of migrants along migration corridors.
  • Strengthened the capacity of technical and vocational training centers to provide quality trainings to potential and returned migrants.
  • Raised awareness to promote safe, regular, and orderly migration, avoid stigmatization of returnees and improve labour migration governance.
  • Extended effective and efficient services to ensure that potential migrants and migrants make informed decision and access regular migration.
  • Provided integrated and comprehensive psychosocial, social, and economic reintegration support to returnees.
  • Provided immediate assistance to returning migrants through cash transfers.
  • Promote fair recruitment practices.

Prospective Policy Alternatives and Practices

The government’s positive attitude towards labour migration and its active involvement in overseeing overseas employment is commendable. Nonetheless, there remains a need for sustained efforts to address the complexities surrounding migration. The irregular migration patterns of Ethiopians to various countries further emphasise the urgency of comprehensive solutions.

The development and adoption of the Ethiopian Overseas Employment Proclamation No 923/2016 and its amendment Proclamation No 1246/2021 is a step forward in managing labour migration and ensuring the rights, dignity, and safety of Ethiopian workers overseas. Nonetheless, the absence of a comprehensive labour migration policy hinders the country’s commitment to improving governance. Therefore, it is recommended that the Government of Ethiopia develop a labour migration policy through a whole-of-government and whole of society approach that involves all relevant actors in the country. As recommended in the ILO report the labour migration policy should capture the numerous facets of labour migration, such as regional economic integration, migration and development, and the protection of migrant workers, including those in an irregular status in Ethiopia and low skilled Ethiopian labour migrants in African countries and other destination countries with which Ethiopia does not have BLAs and MoUs.

MoU negotiation between Ethiopia and Jordan for the protection of Ethiopian migrant workers

Ethiopia have not ratified any of the Migration related convention, hence, it is encouraged for Ethiopia to ratify, and domesticate the ILO convention No.97, ILO Convention No. 143, ILO Convention No. 189 and the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

The BLAs and MOUs forged by the Ethiopian Government with key destination nations represent a crucial step toward organised and regulated labour migration. However, ongoing negotiations with other countries should include social partners and demonstrate the need for continued collaboration and engagement to ensure effective protection and fair working conditions for Ethiopian migrant workers. Moreover, it is suggested that these BLAs & MoUs are in line with international labour standards and provide provision for skills and social security coverage and benefits, as well as portability of those benefits.

Beyond these efforts, fostering skills partnerships within the region and beyond especially amongst countries engaged in migration could significantly contribute to enhancing migration outcomes. Collaborative initiatives could encompass harmonised occupational standards, recognition of prior learning, and skill certifications that align with the needs of destination countries. Such partnerships could have the potential to elevate the status of migrants, improve their working conditions, and promote economic growth within the East and Horn of Africa region as well as the continent. In this intricate landscape of migration, it is imperative for stakeholders, including governments, international organizations, private sector, workers, TVT institutions, and civil society, to work in harmony. By addressing the challenges holistically and promoting a comprehensive approach to migration management, the region can unlock the potential of labour migration for both origin and destination countries. Ultimately, through coordinated efforts, Ethiopia can move closer to ensuring the protection, dignity, and success of its migrant workforce while contributing to the broader economic and social development of the nation and the region.