SA job crisis raises questions about limiting employment of foreign nationals

Minister of Labour Thulas Nxesi has said that government was looking at a policy to limit the employment of foreign nationals.

Minister of Labour Thulas Nxesi has said that government was looking at a policy to limit the employment of foreign nationals.

Published Aug 23, 2020


Karabo Ngoepe and Mzilikazi Wa Afrika

Johannesburg - South Africans can look forward to a bleak future on the job front after Covid-19 decimated the local economy, condemning many to the ranks of the unemployed.

Statistics SA shows an estimated 1.5 million people have lost their jobs in the past five months of lockdown. Unemployment has risen to 30.1%, from a high of 27.7% in February.

Furthermore, the SA Reserve Bank and National Treasury expect the economy to shrink by about 7%, which means job opportunities will shrink further for locals.

Some sectors of society have voiced dissatisfaction at the number of foreign nationals holding both unskilled and skilled positions in the country, while locals continue to bear the brunt of unemployment.

South Africans have in recent months flooded social media expressing anger, particularly towards the government, for employing foreign nationals in key state departments while locals with similar qualifications and, in some instances, more experience, are sidelined.

ANC activist Phapano Phasha is one of the most vocal against the employment of foreigners in government positions. She recently took to Facebook and said what was transpiring “smelled of white supremacy tactics”, adding that what is happening in South Africa needed to be addressed, even though the people doing so would be called xenophobic.

“We are the only country on the continent which has deployed foreign nationals from the continent in strategic positions of power. We have Zimbabweans, Kenyans, Ghanaians, and Nigerians running strategic departments in government. You can’t find South Africans running the show in such countries,” she wrote.

Phasha said the employment of black foreign nationals was not a coincidence because they are not regarded as black enough to act as agents of transformation.

“They are the most arrogant and gatekeepers of white privilege. They start as students at our universities, some come here as lecturers then get promoted to our SOEs (state owned enterprises) under the pretext of transformation. Now enough with this crap. Anyone who is against transformation is an enemy agent. We must deal with these characters because they are not Pan Africanist,” she said.

Another red flag raised was the issue of overseas recruits, with 11.2% of university permanent academic staffing made up of international scholars. The report of the Ministerial Task Team on the Recruitment, Retention and Progression of Black South African Academics, says out of that figure of 11.2%, the statistics show that 34% of the international academic staff in South African universities are from Zimbabwe and Nigeria, with Zimbabweans accounting for 25%.

At the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape and University of Venda in Limpopo, large numbers of the international academics are from Zimbabwe and Nigeria, while UCT and Wits appear able to attract academics from a much wider range of countries.

According to a 2017 study by the African Centre for Migration & Society, approximately 4% of people of working age (15-64 years) across the whole of South Africa were born outside the country.

The study found that foreign-born migrants have a higher rate of employment than South African migrants. It further stated that statistical and econometric digging into Stats SA data in 2014 compared the employment rate of foreign-born workers with that of South Africans, found this to be true and prevailing.

However, the migrants are also more likely to be employed in precarious work - or in the informal sector - than South Africans. This pattern is happening because many employers exploit foreign-born migrants’ willingness to accept more precarious work. Migrants also often hope to use precarious jobs as stepping stones to jobs in the formal labour market.

Minister of Labour Thulas Nxesi said the government was looking at a policy to limit the employment of foreign nationals and his department was in the process of developing a new “national employment policy” as it focuses on economic recovery post-Covid-19.

During a virtual parliamentary meeting on July 21, deputy minister Boitumelo Moloi said the policy will include new regulations around labour migration. As part of a larger project to develop a national employment policy, a labour migration policy development is being fast-tracked both to address immediate challenges, as in the road freight and logistics sector, as well as to co-ordinate labour migration policies with the southern region and continent- wide, she said.

Despite the proposed policy changes, the government continues to be tight-lipped on the exact number of foreigners it employs and the reasons why it employs them. Attempts to get comment were unsuccessful.

The Department of Home Affairs said it does not keep stats of such but merely enforces regulations emanating from the Department of Labour.

The Department of Labour passed the buck to the office of Public Service and Administration Minister, Senzo Mchunu, but there again, attempts to obtain comment were unsuccessful.

At the beginning of the year, IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe said the party wanted to propose legislation to ensure that a certain percentage or a certain quota for certain skills should go to people from outside the country who are in the country legally but the majority of the jobs should be reserved for South Africans.

She said it was looking at an 80:20 ratio, with businesses obligated to ensure that at least 80% of those employed were South Africans.

That issue is also part of former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s new political party campaign strategy. He said the party has been in consultation with many South Africans who have indicated that the employment of foreigners was disadvantaging them.

Mashaba said one thing that has come out and which will be one of its policy offerings would be a skills audit of foreign nationals from 1994. He said it would look at how all of them obtained their citizenships and if they are here legally, the party will encourage that.

“Foreign nationals will only be allowed to work and live in South Africa if they are bringing a skill that is not available. This matter is not negotiable for us. Our Constitution is very clear on this matter. You can’t get citizenship if you don’t meet the requirements,” he said.

The Black Management Forum (BMF) said it supports the calls for more South Africans to be employed but that must not translate to the ostracising of Africans.

BMF president Andile Nomlala said the problem with the discussion around foreign nationals and employment always focuses on black Africans and disregards that white Europeans also hold senior positions in the country.

Nomlala added that if the country wants to deal with the issue of foreign nationals in critical positions, it must be in a holistic manner and include white Europeans.

“If you want to deal with the issue of foreign nationals, we have to be cognisant of the fact that they bring in skills,” he said.

Nomlala added that the African expatriates need to ensure they are not being used to suppress and bypass transformation.

“In the same breath, the whites who don’t want transformation prefer to employ Africans because they are expats, they don’t question the transformation programme. The Africans must not allow themselves to be used as a tool to circumvent transformation because they have less authority to engage on the matter.

“I support them being in positions as long as that doesn’t suppress the potential of locals. But there are intricacies that we need to deal with as individuals.

“As a top economy on the continent, are you not going to be able to attract and absorb skills and talent from the rest of the continent?

“We need to work with them to expand the footprints of our companies throughout the continent. You can’t say we can’t have a Nigerian when RMB has a branch in Nigeria.

“There are many South Africans who are on the continent because of the work they do,” he said.

He added that as much as he supports Africans being employed in South Africa, the issue of skills shortage must not be used as an excuse.

“We don’t have a skills shortage as a country. There are many qualified and competent black professionals in every field but the controllers of the economy and government don’t see good in each other. We are ready to bury our own on anything and embrace anyone who is not ours. Blacks are ready to bury each other,” Nomlala said.

The Sunday Independent

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