Examining Labor Migration Policy in South Africa

By Dr. Zaheera Jinnah

Migrating for work is one of the oldest and most common forms of migration in the world. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are approximately 232 million migrant workers in the world today. For workers, migration represents an opportunity to find work, diversify skills and experience, and remit earnings to support families and households at home. For employers and host countries, migrant workers are an important source of labor that the domestic market cannot provide in terms of either numbers or skills or both. The UNGMD (global migration database) estimates that in 2013, approximately 31 million migrants originated from Africa, of who half remained on the continent.

However, the regulation of migration, and regional labor migration in particular, in South Africa in the post-apartheid era is largely inefficient in recognizing and redressing a century of exploitation, and in addressing the contemporary reality of migration trends in the region. In fact it has achieved the contrary: the Immigration Act and its subsequent amendments and rules provide very little opportunity or access for low skilled migrants to enter and work legally in the country. Moreover, the actions and approach of an increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient ministry tasked to regulate migration results in widespread corruption in South African immigration systems.

Alongside this, in official ANC documents and public statements there has been a growing positioning of migration as a problem that needs to be stopped; and a discourse stating that migrants and asylum seekers need to be kept out as they are a threat to jobs, to public safety, and to the overall condition of life in South Africa. These sentiments fly in the face of the inclusive and progressive South African Constitution which makes little reference to nationality or citizenship; yet somehow these negative and dangerous statements linger and find resonance with masses of people who are dissatisfied with poor service delivery, high unemployment levels, and lack of housing, and who are looking for a convenient scapegoat to pin their dissatisfaction on.

The result is a weakly designed immigration policy, that ignores the reality and potential benefit of regional migration, and which forces many into irregular migration. At the same time, zealous policing of migration creates extra-legal and extra-judicial processes of entry into the country and informal access to work and other services such as housing.

Yet it need not be this way. Available data suggest that there is no ‘influx’ of migrants into South Africa. Only 3 to 4 percent of the country’s population is foreign born, and most are actively productive in the labor market. Based on research coordinated by the African Centre for Migration & Society, at Wits University, as well as evidence from global studies, we already can demonstrate that non-nationals contribute in diverse ways to the local economy, for example, through the provision of much needed goods and services in townships at competitive prices, or through the emerging role migrant workers play in sectors such as domestic work, hospitality and public health care.

Some of our findings include:

Migrants bring a range of skills and services, which are beneficial to the diversification, and development of the economy. In a labor force that is as poorly educated and skilled as the South African one, skilled migrants are desperately sought not just for the provision of much needed skills but also to grow the economy.
24 percent of migrants have completed matric and a further 13 percent hold a tertiary education qualification (compared to just 10 percent of the national average for the latter).

In the public health care sector, about 1.5 percent or 2,640 (out of 173,080) qualified staff are foreign nationals with a higher concentration of 13 percent amongst medical practitioners. 38 percent of all foreign-born medical personnel are from SADC countries and 26 percent are from the rest of Africa.

Migrants in South Africa tend to engage in entrepreneurship activities. Again data shows that 21 percent of migrants are ‘own account workers’ and 11 percent employ others, compared to overall national averages of 9 percent and 6 percent respectively.
In South Africa migrant workers provide much needed labor in certain sectors. For instance, 17 percent of all migrants are working in the crafts sector; and a further 21 percent in services or sales; 13 percent of all domestic workers are migrants.
Migrant workers can engage in knowledge and skills transfer programmes that can alleviate the critical skills shortages faced by the country.

What South Africa needs is less talk of reducing migration, of associating migrants with negative outcomes, or of sending illegal migrants home. Instead it requires a better informed, cohesive and regionally responsive labor migration policy framework that recognizes the socio-economic challenges of the country and develops provisions that will ensure that migrant workers contribute to, rather than work on the periphery of, national economic and labor objectives.

In the current framework there are 1.2 million migrant workers, who face an uphill battle in entering the country, getting their qualifications recognized, and finding work that is not exploitative or abusive. This results in a deterioration of labor conditions, hostility amongst workers and, as we have seen, xenophobia. The Department of Home Affairs knows these challenges and risks well. However, their response, while well meaning, has been misguided. It has ploughed energy and resources into stopping migration, through increased deportations, greater border controls and security, and increased policing of irregular migrants.

Rather than finding ways to end migration, a process that is as old as human history, and unlikely to end, the South African government should rather work with stakeholders such as the Department of Labour, the ILO, trade unions and others to develop, facilitate, and manage an effective labor migration regime that protects workers, and benefits the economy. Until this is in place there is a real risk that conditions for all workers in the country will worsen, which will undermine the substantial progress on labor policy that has taken place since 1994, that ongoing xenophobic attacks will continue, and that key South African constitutional principles of transparency and the rule of law will be diminished.