Don Modesto's face lights up in a special way when he speaks of his beloved Nicaragua. This seems to happen to most migrants when fond memories of loved ones, places, and even smells of their country of origin creep up. But eventually they come back to reality and to the fact that they decided to migrate in search of better economic opportunities.
Don Modesto was born and raised in Nicaragua, but has lived in Costa Rica for the past eight years. He says life has been good in his adopted country – better jobs and quality of life. "Guanacaste (the town where he lives in Costa Rica) has provided a good home for me. I have been treated with kindness by Costa Ricans. I think I have found a good place to make a life, with good employment opportunities, although sometimes I have experienced humiliation and abuse from unscrupulous persons."
What Don Modesto is referring to is something experienced by thousands of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica.
In the past three decades migration flows from Nicaragua to Costa Rica have been prompted by natural disasters, political conflicts and economic downturns. A weak economy and the end of war in Nicaragua have been the main factors for the most recent migration flows. The shrinking economy prompted many to migrate to Costa Rica in search of employment, and the end of war meant that people could move freely across borders.
For unskilled workers and those in sectors suffering from high unemployment, Costa Rica was an attractive and accessible option, with a high demand for labour and a better quality of life.
Macroeconomic policies, which have translated into increased social exclusion, have conspired to become push factors for thousands of Nicaraguans. Costa Rica acts as a magnet by offering abundant work in sectors that are becoming less and less attractive to the native population.
Although the exact numbers are not available, estimates point to some 250,000 Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica on a permanent basis. A similar number is estimated to be in the country in an irregular fashion, working in seasonal jobs and returning home once the work is over.
The increase in the number of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica is also based on the changes that have occurred in the receiving country since the mid 1980's. Costa Rica has seen a marked increase in the demand for labour in the service sector, which the local population has readily filled, leaving behind back-breaking work such as coffee picking, harvesting sugar cane, citrus and other fruits, as well as domestic work and construction.
Fear and ignorance of the law are the main reasons why migrant workers prefer not to register with the social security system. For employers this represents a huge savings, but for the workers it means that they are not protected in case of on-the-job accidents. Also, when irregular migrants are hired, for example, in the construction industry, no contract is offered. They are paid below the minimum wage, and are not covered by social security, which includes workman's compensation insurance.
Working conditions on construction sites near border areas are worse. The living conditions offered by employers are below minimum standards, the work days are long and the diet consists of the most basic fare – rice, beans, corn tortillas and coffee, without the much-needed protein needed to perform the strenuous work.
The Costa Rican Government has worked tirelessly to protect the rights of migrant workers, but there are certain gaps. For example, when hiring an irregular migrant, unscrupulous employers always have the upper hand.
Johnny Ruíz, Head of the Labour Migration Department of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security is an advocate of organized labour migration schemes. "When a migrant from Nicaragua decides to migrate to our country in search of work, they should do so legally so that he or she can be protected by our laws. This way we can be sure that employers are complying with the labour laws," he says.
In the past few years Costa Rica has experienced a boom in various economic sectors. One of them is tourism-related construction. In 2007, more than four million square metres of new construction will be finished; this includes almost three million for family dwellings and close to one million for commerce and industry. According to the Chamber of Commerce, 41 per cent of this building boom is taking place in coastal regions.
The Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MTSS by its Spanish acronym) has confirmed that the country is facing a scarcity of manpower, especially in the Guanacaste area where most construction companies complain of a serious shortage of local manpower. More than 60 per cent of construction workers in this region are migrants from Nicaragua.
To harness the development potential inherent in migration flows, spur economic development and improve living condition in areas with high rates of migration, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI by its Spanish acronym) provided funding to IOM to put in place a co-development project between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
One of the main objectives of the project is to regularize the flows of Nicaraguan migrant workers in Costa Rica, by ensuring legal integration into the local labour market, improve the economic and psychosocial situation of the migrants and their families and to promote the social integration of migrants into Costa Rican society.
To manage migration flows between the two countries, IOM offices in Costa Rica and Nicaragua are working with the Ministries of Labour and Foreign Affairs and Immigration Services to ensure that Nicaraguans registered in a labour migration database are matched with the current labour needs in Costa Rica, which is based on requests made by employers to the MTSS.
Once in Costa Rica, each migrant receives a work permit which includes the name of the employer and the length of the contract.
Ruíz believes that the success of this project depends on the willingness of all parties to work together, "We need to create and establish a solid working relationship between the officials in both countries. This will ensure that Nicaraguans will have the information needed to make an informed decision and to migrate in a regular and orderly fashion."
"The project is benefiting both countries," explains Jorge Peraza IOM Program Officer in San José. "In October of 2007, the Costa Rican Government announced that a quota of 10,000 migrant workers from Nicaragua will be admitted under temporary labour migration permits."
For 2008, preliminary estimates indicate that more than 61,000 workers will be needed for the construction sector, and more than 77,000 for 2009 and 2010.
Horacio Argueta of Nicaragua's Ministry of Labour welcomes the IOM-managed project. "The greatest benefit for our government will be the benefit that our nationals will receive. Nicaraguan workers will be well informed and protected under Costa Rican laws. This project has stepped in to fill a great gap: labour migration that truly benefits the migrants," he says.
Everyone involved in the Co-development Project is hoping that all migrants, like Don Modesto, are able to make their dream a reality.
"No doubt that Costa Rica and Nicaragua are different, but I cannot allow myself to think of going back to my country of birth. It was here that I was able to reach my goals; life has been good to me here. Bur Nicaragua will forever remain in my heart," asserts Don Modesto with an air of melancholy.