28 June 2012

East Africa: Companies Grumble Over Work Permits

In this first part of a series on the integration of the East African Community, Moses Talemwa looks at the issue of work permits, and where it falls in the common market protocol, which calls for the free movement of goods and labour.

Up to May 2011, Moses Buhilya, a Tanzanian national, had established himself as the best Kiswahili news anchor at WBS television. He had spent six of his schooling years in Uganda and understood local culture so well he could find the best translation of a local phrase - making his bulletins the most watched.

"Buhilya was so good at Kiswahili some of us Ugandans were beginning to learn the language simply by following his bulletin and then waiting for the Luganda bulletin half an hour later," Diana Kagere Mugerwa, his former colleague at WBS, recalls.

Then the immigration office came calling. Buhilya was asked to produce his work permit. But his employer, who was convinced that this was unnecessary following the inauguration of the East African Common Market protocol in 2010, neglected this vital detail. The protocol called for the free movement of people, goods and services.

However, it also notes that "the free movement of workers shall be subject to limitations imposed by the host partner state on grounds of public policy, public security or public health."

Thus in one swoop, WBS television lost nine workers - they could not afford to pay the fines imposed by the immigration department. And WBS was not alone. NTV as well as telecom giants MTN and Uganda telecom, and the insurance and banking sector lost a number of staff in a similar way.

In his defence, Buhilya, then a reporter, who comfortably schmoozed with local government officials, says he made the mistake of assuming that the bureaucrats in Arusha were serious about their intentions and he would no-longer need a permit to work in Uganda.

"They were simply throwing ideas around and some of us thought they were determined to make us East African citizens, which was cool then," Buhilya says today.

When reality set in, Buhilya relocated to Mwanza in Tanzania, where he is now an editor at Capital TV, using skills largely learnt in Uganda, while WBS is yet to find an able replacement, one year later. The issue of whether work permits should be scrapped continues to attract debate.

"Some of the countries like Uganda and Tanzania are still apprehensive about what this [eliminating the permits] will bring. Some think it will deny locals a chance to get jobs and others think Kenyans will flood top jobs across the region," Mike Sebalu, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, says.

Consequently, many who had established themselves in their jobs have since left the country. However, Rwanda and Kenya, seen by many as more progressive in the EAC, have signed mutual treaties that allow their nationals to work in each other's country without the need for a work permit or visa.

But in defending Uganda's stance to maintain work permits, East African Community Affairs Minister Eriya Kategaya says: "Just because [Kenya and Rwanda] have agreed on this matter does not mean that we should blindly follow this. In addition, with our narrow tax base, we still need to tax those work permits," he says.

East African nationals pay $600 for a work permit each year and the immigration department estimates that there are at least 15,000 of them in the country, although it is unclear how many actually pay the fee. However, officials in the ministry of EAC Affairs privately say Uganda's stance on the matter could change once it is able to establish a national identity card, an issue that is still shrouded in controversy.

While Ugandan employers are still quiet about it, there are some who feel that Uganda's refusal to scrap work permits is against the spirit of the Common market protocol - to allow the best talents to compete for jobs across the region.

"When I set up my business, my major interest is in employing the best employees to ensure its success. Where they come from should be immaterial especially if he is an East African national," Godfrey Ssali, an economic policy analyst for the Uganda Manufacturers Association, says.

In all fairness, the common market has made it easier for talent to move freely within the region. For instance, the skilled labour in the education and health sectors has found it easier to get better-paying jobs in Rwanda and Kenya, than in the past.

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