Trade unions leave their mark on migration policy in the East African Community

The long-lasting DTDA-EATUC collaboration to promote the rights of migrant workers yields positive results as countries in the region reach important agreement on free movement of labour.

After years of pressure from the trade union movement in East Africa, the countries in the EAC (East African Community – Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and South Sudan) are taking important steps to protect migrant workers, for instance ensuring that social protection follows along when citizens in one member country move to another for work.

One example is the thousands of Kenyan teachers who live and work in Tanzania, where they teach e.g. English and technical subjects. Many have found a family and wish to stay in Tanzania. But if they remain, they are typically cut off from the pensions to which they are entitled through their Kenyan savings. The same problem is seen in Rwanda, where English teachers from Uganda are highly valued labour. Banking, agriculture, tourism, and industry are other sectors that experience blocking of the free movement of labour by the EAC, which makes knowledge sharing and exchange of experience almost impossible.

The regional East African Trade Union Confederation (EATUC) has for many years advocated, with the support of the Danish Trade Union Development Agency (DTDA) that this be changed. Recently, important successful steps were made in the right direction.


The persistent pressure from EATUC convinced the EAC ministers of labour to take another big step towards a new, joint labour and migration policy in October 2021. The issue was discussed at the Regional Consultative Conference on Migration in Rwanda in February 2022. The outcome of the meeting was to fast-track the migration policy and involve stakeholders through social dialogue. The ministers concluded that the consultative process would speed up things (as opposed to treaty negotiations).

"The new policy will eventually protect migrants, as it focuses on dealing with labour migration, harmonising migration policies, protection and empowerment of migrant workers, access to social security and ensuring that social protection schemes can cross borders," said EATUC Executive Director Caroline Khamati Mugalla.

In addition, a result of the EATUC pressure is the formation of a technical workgroup within the EAC. The workgroup is supposed to assess challenges for the free movement of labour and come up with solutions to issues that prevent workers from one EAC country from taking jobs in another.

Years of pressure create results

The progress is the result of EATUC policy papers on migration in East Africa. The policy papers have been used in the dialogue with the EAC, and in general, EATUC has put forth massive pressure to have the issues on migration and free movement of labour placed on the agenda.

Officially, it is a clear goal for the East African Community to work towards a
common market where goods and labour can move freely between countries (as in the EU) and accelerate economic growth, development, and jobs in the region. In 2014, EATUC was supported by the DTDA and the employers in the Confederation of Danish Industry to create a new EAC agreement on new rules that have contributed to cheaper and easier access to work permits for workers who are crossing borders for jobs.

Since then, much of the progress for increased integration between the countries’ labour markets has been halted, which is problematic for the many migrant workers who are dependent on the movement of social protection savings when they go from one country to another. The new steps towards a truly new and revised labour and migration policy, together with the newly formed technical workgroup, might change that. It is estimated that approximately five million people in the EAC countries are migrants. The population is 195 million.

“With new leadership at the helm of the Community who understand EAC’s important role in enabling trade unions to engage and influence, we expect a more strengthened relationship with the Community. We are optimistic to see the forum of ministers in charge of labour elevated to a sectoral council of labour. It is sad to have seen labour not playing a central role in regional integration even though they are custodians to the full implementation of the Common Market Protocol,” says EATUC Executive Director Caroline Khamati Mugalla, “The renewed focus on labour migration is a breath of fresh air in the work that EATUC has done for decades. We see the Community eager to protect workers within the Community and those East Africans migrating to seek greener pastures.”