by Khadija Magardie, Mail&Guardian 31 March 2000
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The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a policy think-tank, has called for the abolition of the quota system currently imposed on skilled labour coming into South Africa.
This is in response to the government's draft Immigration Bill, which promises a shake-up of the country's migration laws. According to CDE director Ann Bernstein the draft Bill and its predecessor, the White Paper on International Migration, are improvements, but still "not good enough".
The government has inherited a disjointed "defence-oriented" migration policy that focuses primarily on policing the country's borders and tightening the noose around "illegal immigrants". As a result, the issue of migration as a catalyst for economic growth has been neglected.
The CDE has studied the international experience of migration policy, to see "what lessons South Africa could learn". The result has been proposals that economic growth could be stimulated by enlarging the pool of skilled people working in South Africa.
The country is suffering from a skills crisis, exacerbated by emigration. Bantu Education distorted the education and training levels of the majority of South Africans. Fewer people are entering the technical professions at tertiary institutions. And there are indicators that the HIV/Aids pandemic is slowly decimating the skilled and unskilled workforce.
In the light of such circumstances, says the CDE, the government's policy of restricting the granting of work permits makes little, if any, sense.
"If we want capital, trade and investment to come to South Africa, we need a clear, unambiguous migration policy," says Bernstein.
The CDE has commended the government's steps towards reformulating legislation to make it more "user-friendly". Responding to the White Paper, the organisation has welcomed the idea that South Africa should take advantage of the positive aspects of globalisation, particularly the unprecedented movement between borders of people with skills, expertise, resources, entrepreneurship and capital.
But it says the government is still sending out ambiguous signals, by placing administrative obstacles in the path of skilled labour coming to work in the country. Under the guise of "protecting the rights of South African workers", it says the government is signalling its non-commitment to the private market as the engine of sustainable economic progress. "If we want South Africa to be competitive in the global economy, our workforce cannot be afraid of competition."
The approach of the CDE is that the existing quota system, which allows government, labour and business to determine which skilled professionals are needed, must be scrapped. "We need to literally scour the barrel of the international labour force," says senior CDE consultant Professor Lawrence Schlemmer.
The call for an easing of restrictions on skilled and semi-skilled labour has been joined by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has urged the Department of Home Affairs to remove barriers preventing foreign mineworkers from progressing in the industry. Its president, James Motlatsi, says agreements between South Africa and neighbouring countries -- which stipulate that black workers from those countries may only work in certain jobs regardless of ability -- are unfair.
He also says it is unfair that black mining students from other countries are denied work permits by home affairs even though there are companies willing to hire them. The draft Immigration Bill introduces new permit categories, such as self-employed persons, corporate, "exceptional skills" and investors' permits. But other "protectionist-style" measures have not been scrapped.
Previously, applicants wishing to work in South Africa had to satisfy home affairs that they would not follow an occupation for which there are enough South Africans available. Although the draft Immigration Bill has removed this, various other measures remain in place that discriminate against foreign professionals.
For instance, the Department of Labour, together with the National Economic Development and Labour Council and various other professional bodies, such as lawyers or health profession councils, advise home affairs on which applications to accept or reject, on the basis of "need". According to the CDE, this system distorts the economy, because state agencies, and not the market, calculate the numbers of skilled professionals entering South Africa.
In addition, employers wishing to hire foreigners have to pay a training levy. Because employers will already be paying a premium for the recruitment and employment of expensive and scarce skills, the CDE says this will constitute "a double burden" and should be scrapped.
The CDE also says there is a glaring lack of transparency in the proposed Immigration Review Board, which will oversee work permit applications. The draft Bill makes no provision for reasons for rejected applications to be furnished.
The organisation proposes that any foreigner in possession of the equivalent of a South African three-year degree or diploma, or any foreigner who is a qualified artisan, should be granted a work permit.
Bernstein says the measures are in the strictly short-term interests of the country, and are intended as a stop-gap measure to address "a desperate situation". She says most countries in the developed world have built their economies by easing the restrictions on skilled labour entering the workforce.
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