Historically South Africa has been the destination of many workers from the rest of Africa and from the rest of the world. It is believed that as much as 7% of SA’s workforce is economic migrants. According to figures release by Stats SA more than 38% of workers in gold mines are non-South African citizens and more than 22% of mine workers in all sectors hail from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.
While the data is un-reliable, with many foreigners in informal employment these figures are possibly grossly underestimating the real impact of foreign workers on the South African economy.
By all means, migrant workers are a fundamental factor in SA’s economic development. But how supportive and reliable is the present administrative and legislative framework?
A case study into this matter reveals the true situation. Speaking to Business Day Lorenzo Fioramont tells his personal story.
"After residing for a few years in SA, in June, I was awarded a chair in regional integration and migration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), with a view to supporting innovation in how migration flows are managed at the regional level.
"And that was when my odyssey with SA’s migration regulations began.
"Although I’m a permanent resident, my wife and my children do not yet enjoy the same status. My second son, who was born in Pretoria in March, doesn’t enjoy any status at all for the simple reason that, as I have not yet received my identity card, we can’t apply for his either.
"When we applied for their permanent residence in June, we were told by the newly appointed Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) that the new applications would take about eight weeks.
"We were quite surprised because my own original application to the Department of Home Affairs took years to be processed. VFS reassured us, quite proudly, that things were finally turning around. Happy and satisfied, we paid the application fee (more than R4,000) and waited. Five months later, there is no sign of any development. VFS has formally apologised to us, indicating that there was a misunderstanding with home affairs and applications now take at least eight months. As my family’s permit expires in two months, we are in limbo."
Fioramont says that this comes at a time when new visa regulations are being introduced, whose effects on investment, trade and tourism haven’t been clearly assessed. Home affairs has repeatedly announced new regulations for families travelling with minors, but has postponed deadlines for the entry into force of the new rules.
"In the past, the government was forced into sudden regularisations and expensive deportations when it realised it couldn’t manage the situation. Announcing reforms while being unable to implement them is undermining SA’s credibility. It’s not just a matter of public image. It’s a question of protecting fundamental rights. Delays and uncertainties can wreck a migrant worker’s life. If they can affect a well-protected middle-class family like mine, which can resort to consultants and lawyers, imagine what they can do to individuals and families who do not have the same living conditions,"continued Fioramont.
"Migrant workers have a fundamental role in developing and reinforcing our economy. This is particularly crucial in a country such as SA, with the skills shortage we face in strategic sectors of the economy, including education and healthcare."
Fioramont said that staistically speaking the average, migrant workers from the rest of Africa are better educated and skilled than their equivalents here at home.
SA is a regional hub of migration flows. This is a source of opportunity, but can also become a major challenge if migration is not properly managed.
"What we need is a simple and clear framework to allow citizens of neighbouring countries to seek work and business opportunities in SA. We may even want to consider experimenting with free movement, for instance, within the Southern African Customs Union. In the European Union (EU), where free movement is a reality, most people have not relocated to other countries. As they benefit from clear arrangements that allow them to return regularly to their home country, they need not relocate permanently."