SA issues over 65 000 work permits

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cape Town - The Department of Home Affairs' issuing of works permits to Zimbabwean nationals, under its recent Zimbabwe Dispensation Project, has inflated the number of work permits issued by the department to foreigners, with over 65 000 issued in the first quarter of this fiscal year.

Briefing a joint meeting for the National Assembly's labour and home affairs portfolio committees, the Department of Home Affairs Deputy Director-General of Immigration, Jackie McKay, said 59 363 of the permits issued between April and June this year were part of the department's Zimbabwe Dispensation Project, which came to an end last month.

In the last financial year, 135 000 work permits were issued to foreign nationals.

The remainder of permits issued during this time were: 672 corporate work permits, 699 exceptional skills permits, 3 202 general work permits, 1 252 permits that fall under the quota system and 1 719 work permits in terms of the provisions of Section 19 (5) of the Immigration Act (which provides for intra-company transfers).

McKay said the challenge his department faced with low-skilled work seekers was that many were opportunists that applied for asylum-seeker permits, as it didn't cost anything and allowed one to work in the country legally.

However, he said the department is looking at overhauling the entire asylum-seeker process and had appointed more members to the department's standing committee on refugees to ensure that work in this area went ahead.

He was quick to point out that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regularly commended the country for its good treatment of refugees.

In answer to DA member Ian Ollis, on why so many work permits were issued to low-skilled workers rather than to those that were highly skilled, McKay said a study needed to be undertaken on migration trends to better understand the kind of foreign work seekers entering South Africa.

McKay said most unskilled work seekers came to South Africa through Mozambique and Zimbabwe - often arriving in neighbouring countries before crossing South Africa's porous borders.

McKay referred all questions that MPs had on the country's porous borders to the Department of Defence, which oversees border security.

According to figures from the Africa Centre for Migration and Society's Forced Migration Studies Programme, there are about 1.6 million to two million foreigners (3-4% percent of the population) living in South Africa, with about 1 million to 1.5 million of these being Zimbabweans.

McKay also pointed out that the Department of Home Affairs' lack of integration of systems often meant that individuals could be resident in different regimes within the department's databases, sometimes under different names enjoying multiple benefits under assumed identities.

He attributed this to the fact that the department didn't take biometric information from foreign work seekers and it only did so for those seeking asylum.

But he questioned whether making finger-printing of foreign workers mandatory would be a good idea, as it could make South Africa a less favourable destination for foreign workers, he said.

Turning to the amendments to the Immigration Act, MacKay said these are largely aimed at revising provisions relating to visas for temporary stays; introduction of permits for low-skilled and unskilled immigrants; revising provisions relating to permanent residence and to allow for advanced processing of travellers as was undertaken during last World Cup.

The amendment calls for temporary residence permits to in the future be referred to as "visas", but that the term "permanent residence permits" would remain.

"The reason for this is that the word permit is interpreted generally - even by our courts - as denoting 'long-term' stay in South Africa, where as the word 'visa' internationally denotes that you visit the country for a temporary, or short period only," he said.

The amendment also calls for a new permit, called the critical skills permit, to replace the existing exceptional skills and quota work permits. The department would then be required to publish a list of critical skills that the department needs.

He said the department is drafting an immigration review policy and would be holding consultations with other departments and hold public hearings.

It is hoped that these discussions would lead to further amendments of the Immigration Act, he said.

The Department of Labour's Deputy Director-General of Public Employment Services,
Sam Morotoba, said the country's labour laws don't discriminate against any migrant workers, but pointed out that the country didn't have regulations addressing specifically migrants.

Morotoba said the department had received legal advice that at present, companies could still easily challenge the department in court over the legality of a permit.

He said Section 9 of the proposed Employment Services Bill - which is presently at Nedlac - would provide a better legal basis for the department on addressing migrants.

The bill proposes that employers must first advertise a position locally and consider those applicants that the department has provided them for through the Employment Services Portal (which the bill has mooted) and then back this up with the relevant evidence presented to the department, if they wish to take on foreign workers.

Meanwhile, a study by Parliament's research unit, made available to committee members today, pointed out that a number of studies showed the benefits of labour migration - with one study revealing that in 1990, more than a third of engineers and other IT professionals living in the US were born elsewhere.

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