A job quotas bill that would limit the number of foreign laborers that can work in South Africa is being compared to apartheid by opposition party members.
The National Labour Migration Policy and Employment Services Bill seeks to address, in the government’s wording, “South Africans’ expectations regarding access to work opportunities, given worsening unemployment and the perception that foreign nationals are distorting labour market access.”
The bill will “introduce quotas on the total number of documented foreign nationals with work visas that can be employed in major economic sectors such as Agriculture, Hospitality and Tourism, Construction etc.”
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Michael Cordo, a member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Alliance, on Wednesday questioned the ruling ANC on the issue, comparing it to “apartheid-era job reservation.”
Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi rejected the comparison.
“It might sound so but it’s not. The apartheid policy was racial. This is not racial. This is about preserving the interests of South Africans. You are coming up with this because the employers in the sectors who want to exploit cheap labour want that to continue,” the minister said.
However, Father Peter-John Pearson, the Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), said the policy stems from “the growing xenophobic trend in South Africa espoused especially in terms of jobs and access to scarce resources.”
“Recently, in local elections political parties espousing xenophobic rhetoric made substantial inroads into communities and won several percentage points and thus seats in local government,” the priest told Crux.
He recognized that the policy proposal had been in the works for quite some time, and it is positioned as a “balancing act, holding together the need to create and certainly not block employment for South Africans.”
But Pearson rejected the insinuation that South Africans can’t find jobs because the jobs have been taken away by foreigners.
“This narrative of job stealing is probably the one that seems superficially to grab most people’s imaginations. It’s not all that clear cut even though there may be parts that could be interpreted as such,” he said.
“One has to bear in mind alongside the other factors that many especially informal and semi-formal work places employ South Africans. There is considerable research to back this. Also, the figures show that it’s not only foreigners grabbing jobs; other factors play a role. Just bear in mind that foreigners only constitute seven percent of the population, and the unemployment rate is 35 percent, so the impact is not just on foreign nationals. Other serious factors also come into play,” the priest continued.
“Clearly foreigners are not to blame per se,” he said.
The cleric said it was clear that the government of South Africa came up with the bill to fulfill its obligation to provide jobs to the population as well as its “international obligations in terms of the international protocols which oblige the country to provide for the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers.”
“The government believes that this proposition will entertain/cover both requirements,” he said.
The government also argues that the reform will actually help vulnerable foreign workers from being exploited, which Pearson acknowledges is needed.
In a March 2022 briefing paper, the cleric stated that “since migrant groups seldom have any opportunity to defend themselves, they have become easy targets for extremist groups looking for opportunities to advance their political agenda.”
In the paper, Pearson noted that few policymakers want to take chances on such a divisive issue, and during periods of economic crisis they may choose simply to repatriate foreign workers and close the migration gates.
“This happened recently in South East Asia in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, for example, but has also occurred in other parts of the world. Even the most responsible political parties have been known to play the ‘migration card’ in order to win more votes,” the paper continued.
Speaking to Crux, Pearson said many foreign nationals in South Africa are exploited by “unscrupulous companies.”
“The exploitation of workers – especially black, ununionized workers – is a deep part of South Africa’s history. This must obviously be stopped. The reality is that there is enough legislation to cover cases of exploitation and of poor working conditions to turn the tide without this legislation. It doesn’t specifically need this legislation,” he said.
The public consultation period for the National Labour Migration Policy and Employment Services Bill will continue until the summer, when it will be considered by the South African parliament.