The skills shortage, Home Affairs and immigration strategies

20th September 2010 By: Chris Watters

Government announced recently that because of the chaos in some of the SETAS, it had little data on how well it was addressing the skills shortage. Minister Nzimande is quoted as saying that "if we do not know what skills we have got, how can we plan for what we still need? The gaps in our information systems about learners makes the national scarce and critical skills list a joke. ..." And then somewhat more starkly especially when coming from the responsible Minister as opposed to an opposition politician- "If we don't do something drastic, we will be in danger of running the economy into the ground because of a shortage of skills."


Whenever there is a discussion about resolving the skills shortage, the pink-elephants-in-the-corner are the Department of Home Affairs and the question of what role the country's immigration policy is playing to help resolve the crisis. Because there are several immutable facts at play here. The first is that if a needed skill cannot be found in the country, then the skill needs to be sourced outside the country. The second is that expat recruitment is not a knee jerk reaction by commerce and industry; in most cases, an expat-driven solution is far more expensive on a cost-to-company basis than is a home grown one. Thirdly, whereas South Africa is not alone in needing to source much needed skills offshore, we need to get in line along with a whole bunch of countries to find and retain these people. Then finally, we are not the most desirable destination for specialist expat labour which reality drives commerce and industry to have to lay out the red carpet for the incoming expats.


And does the Department of Home Affairs play its part and come to the party? The Department however has an increasingly schizophrenic profile on such matters. Laudably, in response to the needs of large infrastructural projects such as the Gautrain or the building of the SWC stadiums, it developed the Large Account Unit to fast track the work permit requirements of these projects and companies which has largely proved successful. To qualify to join this project, the companies have to show that they meet certain stringent criteria in terms of issues such as capital investment, employment generation, etc. But in a somewhat more contentious move, some companies that could not possibly qualify for "Large Account" status and benefits have been allowed by the Department to qualify. But perhaps this flexibility is to be applauded.


And of course, the amnesty for Zimbabweans may well prove to be an invaluable device by easing into the economy a significant number of well-trained and educated young people. Although it has to be said that despite the amount of time this amnesty idea has been mulled over in the Department, the precise mechanics of the process in the short term and what happens to these people in the medium to long term, are far from clear - and regrettably so.


But when we take a look at what happens about work- and other permits for everyone else - the Department manages to ruin it and lose the brownies it has earned.


And lest we forget, "everyone else" ranges from companies that do not meet the Large Account criteria through to SMMEs and then South Africans who just want their spouses or parents to be able to live with them and have their spouses contribute to the joint family.
Currently if you apply for a work permit, the wait - pretty much across the country - is anywhere between three and six months. If you first need to ask the Department to waive a particular requirement, add another three to four months to that. And if, as can happen, the application is refused, an appeal will take another six months. Should the appeal be refused and you invoke the right to appeal to the Minister of Home Affairs, that appeal usually takes about a year. And if you get tired of taking a day off to stand in the queues to see if the application has been finalised, don't try phoning in to follow up, Ubuntu is not recognised too often by some Department officials. Whilst it would be a gross injustice not to record that there are some seriously kind, decent and professional souls working at the Department, all too often, you will get nowhere and frequently, none too politely either. And if, for whatever reason, you have a permit that turns out to be false, and you apply to have that sorted out, that too takes about six months on average. And for those particularly stoic souls who wish to apply for permanent residence, the experience in Johannesburg (the Department's largest and busiest regional office) is an eye opener. You first need to be interviewed and it takes about 6 - 7 months to get an interview date and thereafter the application will still take another six months to be adjudicated.


And now, to add insult to the waiting-time injury, the Department plans to ask Parliament in a Bill to be tabled very soon, to prevent attorneys, immigration practitioners and/or their staff from standing in these queues for their clients. It doesn't matter if you are a white collared executive whose income costs the SA company a fortune or you are somewhat more ‘blue-collared' and can't afford to take the time off [or you as the employer can ill-afford to have staff take the time off] to wander into, for example, the Johannesburg CBD to get to Home Affairs by 6 in the morning and then spend two or three days standing in queues - for that is what it takes usually at the bigger offices. But Home Affairs will be the next great leveller: everyone gets to queue.


At a recent workshop where the Department tried to sell its plans, it acknowledged that this could be a problem but, reportedly, advised that chief executives and the like will be able to send their secretaries to Home Affairs. So you can send your secretary who knows zip about this stuff but you can't send your attorney who's been doing this for years. Go figure, as they say!


Lest we forget - the affected people are the very people that the economy and their employers desperately need - to be working, not queuing! How do companies persuade expats to come here and ‘enjoy' the Home Affairs experience as opposed to that of a competing state like the UAE where the turnaround time for a work permit is three days - or other countries where the paperwork can all be lodged electronically - and in most countries where attorneys and other properly trained and regulated agents, can at least attend to this for the expat and the employer.


Another intended ‘initiative' is a return to the practice of the Eighties and Nineties where all applications had to be lodged in the country of origin - a practice that made sense in a state where security was everything. But what is the rationale now - administrative convenience? And presumably extension applications can be processed inside the country subject to being willing to do the queue standing exercise. However, the ‘external application' is not an efficient solution where, for example, the intended expat is already in-country whether working on a short term assignment or to see whether he or she likes the country and schools for the kids and houses (and queuing at Home Affairs). Must everyone be flown back to the country of origin to do the paperwork? Whilst that may reduce the workload of the Department inside the country, what is the logic of that from the economy's and the employer's perspective?
The Department needs to seriously consider the wider impact of some of these intended measures. In this age of globalisation and where, for example, South Africa is competing to attract companies in the services sector, the downside is that these operations can relocate very quickly to other countries.


Just last week the UK's Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made the point in the media that poorly thought through immigration controls in that country "had been very damaging to British industry by stopping companies hiring key staff." The UK's Department for Business had examples of companies which had reduced investment or relocated operations overseas. The Business Secretary called "for more flexibility" and "the brutal fact is that the way the UK's system is currently being applied is very damaging."


If that is the position in the UK how much more of a wake-up call do we need in South Africa to integrate flexibility into our immigration systems. No-one is calling for controls to be abandoned - well no-one seriously.


But imposing even more rigid controls and unwieldy bureaucracy instead of making it easier for the economy to attract needed skills, ignores the demands to grow the economy and for job creation in South Africa as well as the realities of trying to be competitive globally. And as Minister Nzimande says, we are in danger of driving the economy into the ground.