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Mangaung and a new immigration policy?

6th November 2012

By: Chris Watters

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Amidst all the supposed doom and gloom in the run up to the Mangaung conference, it is hoped that attentions will not be solely focused on the election of party office bearers.  The ANC will be voting on various policy issues.  

What with there being a new Minister of Home Affairs, a very challenged economy and the Department having had a relatively bad year in the courts on policy issues, it is hoped that the very limited focus on immigration policy in the “Great Leap Forward” paper at the Policy Conference earlier this year(which merely took a swing at refugees and called for ‘pan-African burden sharing’), will be reviewed.  The challenges facing the South African economy clearly call for bold action whoever emerges as leader from the Mangaung conference. 

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And the government’s announcement of further infrastructural development work means at least one thing – that there will be the need for skilled labour – whether artisans or others - that the country does not have, as was underlined by the Census.

The recent capital works’ programme - building stadiums and roads and pipelines etc - brought to light a systemic series of problems that continue to plague Home Affairs.  Large scale recruitment of foreign skilled workers is usually handled through the issue of corporate permits to the intended employers.  The corporate permit is, in effect, authority to an employer to go and recruit a given number of workers within specific fields.

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In the past, the issue of corporate permits - and the promise of huge profits - attracted some labour brokers like bees to honey - with some being seriously less ethical than others.  Rumours abounded about mistreatment and even of human smuggling taking place - with the workers being brought into SA and housed and treated in appalling conditions.  Stories circulated of brokers getting permission (when it is not clear that they were entitled to) to bring in artisans with these people being kept as a pool of surplus labour.  Stories were also told of instances of brokers advertising that if any of these workers so much as mentioned the word “trade union” or made any “trouble”, he or she would be replaced, within a day or two, within someone more willing to be less trouble.  And in the middle of it all, Home Affairs did nothing - or worse.  At the time fingers were also pointed at officials within the Department of Labour – that Department has to be consulted and give a recommendation on the issue of all corporate permits. 

Now – and perhaps as a backlash against the abuses that took place - the Department of Labour is reportedly all but refusing to issue any recommendations on applications for bona fide corporate permits.  This appears to be the case even if the permits are sought by equally bona fide applicants.  The Department of Labour reportedly looks to rely on supposed non-compliance with a host of irrelevant requirements which have no relationship to an immigration policy.

Against that background, two recent stories out of the UK highlight the need for lateral thinking, for an appreciation that our national immigration policy should not be focused solely on how well we can play gatekeepers. 

A creative response to the economic crisis should also look to a well-managed and inventive immigration policy, as a way to help us out of the current morass.  

One report quoted a former senior civil servant as saying that in putting limits on skilled immigrants to the UK from outside the EU, the UK government was “shooting itself in the foot”.  In SA there is no effective numerical cap on the importation of skilled immigrants. 

But, poor service delivery, fuelled by incoherent immigration policy, poor training and sometimes even open xenophobia amongst Home Affairs’ officials, can serve as a very effective substitute for statutory limits.

The second story was that the Canadian government was actively targeting ‘mobile’ foreign immigrants in the UK who were disillusioned with life in the UK with the Canadian government promising them a much better life in Canada.  

As the Canadian Immigration Minister put it in a speech in Ireland recently which must resonate with Home Affairs, “The Government of Canada is committed to building an immigration system that actively recruits talent rather than passively processing all applications that we receive”.

Food for thought, Minister!

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