Labor market integration of vulnerable migrants: A case study of Colombia

Source: Razón Pública

In response to the large influx of Venezuelan migrants, Colombia has seen a rise in promising initiatives to promote their labor market integration. Building on the country’s experience with its “inclusive employment model for vulnerable populations”, many stakeholders are implementing demand-driven labor market intermediation programs that also offer a range of complementary support services.

By Kevin Hempel | June 2024

This is the second blog article of our 2-blog series on labor market integration of vulnerable migrants. You can find the first blog on global experiences here.

Over seven million people have fled Venezuela in recent years, most of them to Colombia (2.5 million). Colombia made global headlines when it announced a ten-year temporary protection status for Venezuelans in 2021, allowing eligible Venezuelans to regularize their stay and reside in Colombia for ten years. This status includes accessing a full range of rights such as identification documents, healthcare, education, formal employment, and financial inclusion, among others. The move has illustrated the openness of many Latin American governments in accommodating and integrating Venezuelan migrants.

Barriers to employment – beyond the usual suspects

Across the globe, the two barriers to labor market integration of refugees and migrants that probably tend to get the largest attention are (1) right to stay and work, as well as (2) language barriers. Indeed, many countries have officially restricted refugees’ and migrants’ access to the labor market (in general, for a certain time, in certain industries), and/or have fallen short translating legal rights into practice (see for example here or here), making labor market integration very difficult by design. Similarly, when refugees and migrants do not speak the language of the host country, it naturally creates a major barrier for integration.

The case of Colombia is very interesting in that it shows that although these two barriers are not a major issue (due to the regularization effort and the shared Spanish language), labor market integration for Venezuelan migrants still proves difficult. This allows putting a spotlight on additional barriers to labor market integration that Venezuelan migrants face above and beyond those barriers by vulnerable populations in general, including within the host community (e.g., in terms of lack of certain skills and financial constraints). Conversations with different stakeholders in Colombia pointed to the following main additional barriers for Venezuelan migrants:

  • Lack of support network: The lack of local support networks affects Venezuelan migrants in multiple ways. First, in labor markets where most jobs are found through personal contacts, migrants are at a severe disadvantage. Second, accessing programs and staying in a job becomes much more challenging, because there is less available (family) support to fall back on (e.g., in terms of housing, childcare).
  • Administrative problems: Even if migrants may be officially eligible to access public services, including for employment support, they face challenges in having their eligibility verified or being registered, for example, because they have a different type of identification document than local citizens. Similarly, even when employers are willing to hire them formally, issues can arise if the migrant did not manage to get a bank account and social security registration due to bureaucratic obstacles.
  • Employers’ reluctance to hire: This reluctance can stem from various sources, incl. legal uncertainty about hiring foreign workers, lack of information about the process, negative stereotypes, etc

Colombia’s history on inclusive employment

When looking into Colombia’s experience with labor market integration of Venezuelan migrants, one of the things I found most interesting was that Colombia had already made advances with regards to developing a shared understanding on promoting the labor market integration of vulnerable populations prior to the large influx of Venezuelans.

Indeed, since 2015, a coalition of civil society stakeholders, led by Fundación Corona and the national employers association ANDI, developed and promoted the Inclusive Employment Model for Vulnerable Populations (Modelo de Empleo Inclusivo para Población Vulnerable), which recognizes that different groups (e.g., youth, women, persons with disability, etc.) face different barriers to employment. In turn, it was recognized that these group-specific barriers explain their difficult situation in the labor market, and that employment support interventions must therefore adopt a differentiated approach and tackle the specific needs and obstacles of these populations (a detailed discussion of the model can be found here). This model also influenced public sector initiatives, as illustrated in the adoption of the “Labor inclusion model with a gap-closing approach” (Modelo de Inclusión Laboral con enfoque de cierre de brechas) by the Public Employment Services.

When waves of Venezuelan migrants started to enter the country, key stakeholders in Colombia already had a framework to think about this new target group, and vulnerable migrants were added as a key target group of interest within the inclusive employment approach, as shown in the latest National Inclusive Employment Report. Stakeholders also conducted multiple studies to better understand the employment barriers of vulnerable migrants and the implications for employment support interventions (see for example here and here).

The Colombian employability model for migrants and host communities

Another interesting feature of Colombia’s experience is that a certain consensus has emerged among multiple stakeholders on how to promote the employability of vulnerable migrants. Broadly speaking, the selected approach focuses on demand-driven labor market intermediation combined with a range of complementary support services that foster beneficiaries’ participation and retention in the scheme and on the job. Program examples include:

Key features of these programs include:

  • Inclusive targeting (vulnerable migrants as well as Colombian returnees and host communities)
  • Start with employer engagement and identification of vacancies, with a focus on companies with significant staffing needs (min. 10-20) for formal entry-level positions
  • Mitigation of employment barriers on individual and firm level (approx. 1-2 months). Elements commonly include:
      • Short training up to 120-150h in line with company needs
      • Personal counselling (troubleshooting of personal/family issues) and referral to specialized health and social services as needed
      • Small cash allowance to facilitate attendance (e.g., for transport, internet, childcare) and job entry (e.g., uniform or personal equipment)
      • Company-level HR support, e.g., regarding administrative procedures to hire migrants, tools to foster more inclusive hiring and employment
  • Matching of candidates with vacancies (preselection through program, final selection by company)
  • Post-placement support for the individual and the employer (approx. 6 months)

The implementation of these services is typically conducted through local employment service providers, which can include either non-public providers (e.g., local NGOs) or public agencies (e.g., “cajas de compensación familiar”). To overcome the lack of trust in public services by many migrants, these programs also try to leverage local organizations of Venezuelan migrants to provide information about available services and support enrollment.

Conclusions

It is really nice to see that one of the main intervention models adopted in Colombia closely mirrors many of the success factors that have also emerged from international experiences on the labor market integration of vulnerable migrants (see our previous blog). As such, the experience in Colombia can be a good example for other countries in the region seeking to improve economic opportunities for migrants and local communities alike. Yet, with many of the existing programs being relatively small scale compared to the magnitude of the migrant population, more efforts will be needed to ensure sufficient coverage of these and similar initiatives.

About the author:

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn.