South Africa’s massively reduced critical skills list threatens to expel expats and foreign workers

 ·5 Mar 2019

Foreign workers have raised concerns over South Africa’s new critical skills list and the possibility that it could lead to an exodus of people that no longer meet the new criteria.

A confidential draft of the new document obtained by Reuters indicates that the new list could be introduced as early as April, and appears to reflect a growing climate of economic nationalism unfavourable to the hiring of non-South Africans.

Concerns have also been raised that the list is being rushed through without adequate consultation – despite promises made by President Cyril Ramaphosa to overhaul the current visa system.

Bonang Mohale, chief executive of Business Leadership SA said the draft skills list was much shorter and restrictive – removing some sectors like architecture, and reducing others like life and earth sciences.

Cape Town’s burgeoning tech sector, which attracted new investment from the likes of Amazon and Huawei, has also formed a special task team lobbying government to include AI engineers and corporate general managers.

Among experts, the fear is that with a reduced list, many expats and foreign workers who previously qualified for work visas may no longer qualify and will be forced to leave the country – taking their skills with them.

“South Africa suffers from a gross skills shortage, so all of these reductions are not helpful,” Mohale said.

Acting director general of Home Affairs, Thulani Mavuso, that said some economic sectors wanted certain skills included in the list while others argued ‘we have these skills in abundance and you are depriving South Africans of jobs’.

Mavuso said the draft list should be finalised by April before taking effect immediately once signed by the minister.

Significantly shorter

Speaking to BusinessTech in November 2018,  immigration expert Stefanie de Saude-Darbandi said that the draft of the new critical skills list is significantly shorter than previous lists and omits numerous key skills.

“Among others, the designation ‘corporate general manager’ appears to have been dropped from the list, and no provision is made for equivalent skills,” she said.

“This implies that high-level CEOs, business managers and consultants will no longer be able to apply for scarce skills visas, which raises questions about whether foreign business investors and multinationals will be able to support their local investments with the right level of staff,” she said.

“The draft list now allows for foreign language skills only if they are to be used in call centres. This excludes the high-level foreign language skills needed by organisations engaged in pan-African and international trade, consulting and support.

“For enterprises desperately short of next generation technology skills to drive innovation, it should come as some concern to find that Artificial Intelligence and machine learning experts, IoT and data science skills are not included on the new critical skills list.”

Speaking to Reuters, de Saude-Darbandi  said that the list could potentially affect thousands of foreigners in the country.

She added that appealing against visa rejections in court could take years, at substantial cost to applicants and families, she said.

Already difficult to bring talent in

In a recent interview with eNCA, director of Employment Practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, Michael Yeates said it was currently difficult for skilled foreigners to enter into the country following changes made to the Immigration Act in 2014.

“Skilled foreigners who wish to apply for a visa in South Africa either have to do it on their own or through consultants  – but they can’t do the entire process from start to finish with consultants or attorneys.”

He added that neighbouring countries – such as Botswana – were much more progressive immigration strategy in that it actually headhunts skilled workers.

“South Africa doesn’t really have a progressive system,” he said.

“We do have critical skills visas but it’s really dependent on the applicant themselves to apply for it and once they get into South Africa there is no real active integration on the part of the government to assist them.”

Yeates said that there had been many studies done to show the value of bringing skilled foreign workers to an economy.

“Foreign nationals that come to South Africa pay their taxes, make use of local businesses, are typically more entrepreneurial and studies show that they are less risk averse.”

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