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Picture: 123RF/TAIGA
Picture: 123RF/TAIGA

The government is a step closer to overhauling its immigration process to make it easier and quicker for foreign nationals to travel to the country for business, work and tourism, after years of complaints from corporate SA that the visa regime is a hindrance to bringing in top talent to SA.

The department of home affairs on Wednesday invited corporate employers to submit an expression of interest to participate in the Trusted Employer Scheme (TES), six years after it was proposed in 2017 as an innovative way to make SA an investment destination.

The department announced in a Government Gazette that it will soon launch a pilot for the scheme as a first step towards full implementation.

The scheme will “allow SA to more easily attract skills and manage immigration, particularly in the processing of applications for senior executives, technical personnel, corporate employees and investors”, the announcement reads.

“To qualify ... an employer, investor or business needs to demonstrate that it has the financial strength to employ a foreign national, that it runs training programmes for SA citizens and that it is a good corporate citizen.”

Reforming the visa regime to attract critical skills that businesses need to grow has been one of the key objectives of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Operation Vulindlela, a joint initiative by the presidency and Treasury to speed up implementation of structural reforms.

Cosatu acting spokesperson Matthew Parks said the trade union federation welcomes efforts to improve service delivery at home affairs.

“While in some instances there may be a need to source such skills elsewhere, we believe that most skills are available within SA and that government and business need to do much more to abide by our labour laws and prioritise the employment of South Africans, in particular young people,” Parks said.

“We cannot sustain a nation with a 42.1% unemployment rate and a youth unemployment rate of 60%. Where we don’t have skills available locally, employers need to abide by our labour laws and ensure they have the necessary skills development plans in place to transfer those skills to local workers.”

The Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry has previously warned that 100,000 essential jobs in SA were at risk because of the slow pace in approving visas required to bring in skilled workers from other countries.

Lesego Matsheka, a senior immigration manager at KPMG SA, said it is a welcome initiative. “The SA government can equally gain through large investments in capital but also attract skilled workers who could help drive economic growth.

“The TES is being implemented to allow employers to be vetted and approved in advance to reduce the administrative burden for each visa application. The objective of the scheme is that a pathway would be created to employ skilled foreign labour more efficiently where there have been challenges from a visa process perspective, especially with regard to the unpredictability of outcomes, document requirements and processing times.”

A company will need a minimum of 80 points out of 100 to qualify for membership of the scheme. The selection criteria include companies making an investment in the country or pledging to do so. The government cited R500m as an example of the defined threshold of investment that must be made at the annual SA Investment Conference. This will see a company earn 30 points. Eligible businesses must also employ at least 500 people, 60% of whom must be South Africans. This will earn them 25 points.

The sector in which the business conducts trade will also be considered. For example, the energy sector will be favourably looked at, and if a company is in this sector and others considered to be of national priority or strategic importance, the company will receive an additional 15 points. Having skills transfer programmes for SA citizens will result in 20 points.

Rona Bekker, a senior policy adviser at the National Employers Association of SA, said the government is focusing on the wrong issues with regards to business, unemployment and the economy, and should rather place more focus and effort on upskilling and educating South Africans.

“Why is the government giving preference to the creation of policies and incentives to attract foreign skills while ‘chasing’ away our own skilled citizens with unfavourable policies such as the National Health Insurance Bill? We cannot even freely employ certain skilled citizens due to race-based policies and legislation such as employment equity,” Bekker said.

“This scheme finds extremely limited application and would benefit only a handful of South African companies due to the near-impossible criterion for qualification.”

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