SA’s dysfunctional work permit system – Mangosuthu Buthelezi


IFP leader writes on the obstacles placed on employers trying to bring in skilled labour from abroad

 Dear friends and fellow South Africans,

Having served as Minister of Home Affairs for the first ten years of democracy, I retain a keen interest in migration issues, particularly as they affect the economic growth and development of our country. I was therefore concerned when last year’s legislative amendments to the Immigration Act included a requirement that could only obstruct the entry of skilled workers and ultimately deter investment.

It seems that legislative amendments by the Department of Home Affairs, and delays in administrative justice by the Department of Labour, have ensured that skilled foreigners applying to work in South Africa face a long and uphill battle.

When the Immigration Amendment Act came into effect in May 2014, several immediate problems caught the spotlight. Some were ‘resolved’ by delaying implementation, such as the need to obtain full unabridged birth certificates when travelling with one’s children. Other problems, however, are escalating.

One such problem is the need for work visa applicants to obtain a certificate from the Department of Labour that effectively confirms that no South African could do what they are being hired to do, and that they are not going to do it for less money or under worse conditions than a South African would.

When I entered Home Affairs in 1994, immigration legislation required a complete transformation, for it was predicated on the apartheid mind-set of keeping everyone out unless they fit a narrow and racist description of “desirable”. The laws we inherited were woefully incapable of bringing skills and investment into a democratic South Africa at the speed and to the extent that we both needed and sought.

Among the many challenges and obstacles we were confronted with as we engaged immigration reform was the fact that the Department of Labour was ill-equipped to certify that each and every foreigner applying for a work permit had the required skills and would not be taking a job away from a South African. This had to be determined another way, which was more efficient and shifted the administrative burden onto the employer themselves.

Thus we inserted the requirement for an employer to prove that no suitable South African could be found to fill the position they intended to fill with an appropriately skilled foreigner. This was achieved by advertising the position. The mere fact that an employer would accept a greater administrative burden to employ a foreigner than they would to employ a citizen suggested that a need did in fact exist for the skills that foreigner provided.

Thus, under the legislation I piloted, the Labour certification was removed and work permits were expeditiously issued.

Unfortunately, the Department of Home Affairs has seen fit to bring back the requirement for a certificate from the Department of Labour, while retaining the burden on the employer to advertise and prove the need to employ a foreigner.

Unfortunately, again, the Department of Labour is still ill-equipped to provide certifications and is struggling to cope with a backlog of applications for certificates. Without the certificate, a work visa application cannot be submitted. Thus months are being added onto what is already a drawn out process. Not surprisingly, skilled workers move on, taking their skills where they are both needed and wanted.

But there is an added dimension to the problem at the Department of Labour. On 12 December 2014, the Johannesburg Regional Office of the Department suddenly stopped accepting applications. That section “closed”. A printed notice was simply placed flat on a counter-top saying, “Please note that submission of applications is closed and will re-open on the 12th January 2015. Thank you.”

Nevertheless, on 12 January 2015, applicants were turned away by security who explained that the relevant section was “still closed”.

In terms of administrative justice and the responsibilities of Government, one wonders how an office of a government department can summarily close, without any notice, for a full month, presumably for the holiday season. Is South Africa only interested in economic growth and development for 11 months of the year?

Work visa applicants have had to wait a full month just to be able to request a certificate, and will still need to wait while the backlog of certificates is processed before theirs can be issued. Only then can they apply for the actual visa at Home Affairs.

This, really, is the tail end of a lengthy process, considering that the position must first be advertised and applicants vetted, a police clearance certificate must be obtained, proof of qualifications must be evaluated by SAQA and translated by a sworn translator, and the employer must provide several written undertakings as well as a contract that is conditional on the work visa being granted.

It would be fair for skilled foreigners to question whether Government is intentionally obstructing their entry into South Africa. But it seems more likely that Government has simply fallen into the trap, yet again, of adding more bureaucracy in the misguided belief that it will close all the loopholes. In truth, the greater the administrative burden on Government, the less efficient the process becomes.

If we want greater economic growth and development in South Africa, we need to empower individuals and civil society, rather than deferring all power and responsibilities to the State.

Yours in the service of our nation,

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP

Issued by the IFP, January 14 2015