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Brain drain: "Europe poaching African healthcare workers"

afrol News, 28 May - Global trade unions today warn of the consequences of the increased migration of workers; in particular skilled labour moving from poor to rich countries. The health sector, which is booming in aging Europe, has become the new focus of skilled Africans deserting their country. Mauritian, South African and Kenyan unions accuse European governments of "poaching".

- Europe is poaching our nursing staff to look after its elderly, complains Zhye Cassan Kurreman, president of the largest Mauritian nursing union, affiliated to the Mauritian Labour Congress. "We're going to have no one left to do this task in Mauritius," she adds.

Mauritius is marked by a well advanced education system, which produces healthcare workers that easily fit into the demands of European rapidly growing health sector, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) says in a report on migrant workers released today. The Indian Ocean island however cannot compete with the tenfold salaries in Europe. Despite the investments in its national education system, the "brain drain" to Europe leaves Mauritian hospitals understaffed.

- Does migration contribute to development? the trade union federation asks. Host countries benefit from their labour and home countries receive financial remittances from migrants. Nevertheless, skilled migrants "represent a loss to the home country," the ICFTU report says. The "brain drain" is already leading to labour shortages in several sectors; in particular health and education.

- Mauritian nurses are much appreciated in Europe, particularly in Great Britain, thanks to their high level of qualification, says Ms Kurreman. "The practical training given in Mauritius is quite advanced, particularly in the area of minor surgery." Mauritians further have the advantage of speaking French and English - a great asset on the European labour market.

Recruitment is systematic. Mauritian migrant workers are most often recruited through newspaper adverts, although recruitment agents are occasionally sent to the country of origin. "The British send recruitment agents who very discreetly make contact with the nurses and directly negotiate the contracts. Last week, 26 nurses were lured away by a single recruiter," says Ms Kurreeman.

- Over the last three years at least 500 people have emigrated to Europe; most of them were already highly experienced, making it an even greater loss for our forsaken hospitals, she adds. For Mauritian authorities, this "brain drain" is problematic as needs are growing in the national health sector. Also Mauritius struggles to cope with the ageing of its population. The island's population has an age structure similar to Europe.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the country's middle-income level makes it both a source and a goal of migrant labour. Also here, the emigration of healthcare workers has led to staff shortages at a time when the country's needs are great, its population suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS, the IFCTU report comments.

In South Africa, many doctors have been recruited by Canada and since 1991 the number of nurses leaving the country has risen eightfold. Half have gone to the UK. As a result, South Africa has become a huge source of medical staff, whilst 80 percent of doctors in its rural areas are now recruited from neighbour countries. The "brain drain" thus causes a vicious circle in the region.

In Kenya, at Nairobi's public maternity hospital, staffing shortages are now so critical that on average, nurses often care for 60 to 90 patients during shifts lasting ten hours. One exhausted nurse on duty told the ICFTU that those remaining in Nairobi had chosen not to migrate to better jobs overseas. "Yes, we are basically volunteers. But if we didn't stay, then who would take care of these mothers and babies?" she said.

The Kenyan nurse explained that most of her colleagues had gone to Southern African countries, including Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. "That's how they started the exodus," she said. "I understand they have been going to the US from Southern Africa and to Britain because of the better terms and conditions of service there. The nurses here are paid very low salaries, very low. You get just 5,000 shillings a month [US$ 70], but you cannot survive on that amount!"

Almost half of newly recruited nurses in the UK in 2001-2002 came from foreign countries, such as the Philippines, India or South Africa. "And all this is despite the fact that the [African] continent is being devastated by HIV/AIDS, which is increasing the workload and sapping the morale of those remaining," laments the IFCTU study's author, Stephen Bach.

And the "brain drain" in Africa's public health sector is indeed a continent-wide problem, where it is similarly causing a staffing shortage. In Ghana, 42.6 percent of doctors' posts and 25.5 percent of nursing posts were unfilled in 1999.

Similar problems are also endemic in the education sector in Africa, with universities being particularly hard hit by the loss of lecturing staff. "Poor countries are financing the universities of rich countries, through their failure to provide decent conditions to hold on to their staff," points out Ibra Diene, General Secretary of the Senegalese higher education trade union (SAES).

African trade unions however remain split on how to tackle the growing "brain drain" problem. In Kenya, trade unions have recommended applying pressure on the government to increase the health budget, promote the establishment of collective bargaining committees in all health centres and pursue negotiations on increasing wages and bonuses.

In Mauritius, Ms Kurreeman is more uncertain. "We, as a union, are in a very tricky position. Because, on the one hand, the prospective migrants ask us to help them. They ask us to act as referees, to reassure their future employers of their skills, for example. We cannot stop them from leaving!"

- And on the other hand, we press the government for improvements in the conditions for nursing staff, in an effort to keep our nurses in the country," she points out. The trade union leader worries about her own old age, when Mauritius will have no one to look after its elderly.

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