Labour mobility is an integral part of international trade and holds benefits to countries, companies and workers. Individual workers can increase their income levels; improve their standards of living; and gain access to better employment opportunities through labour migration.
Companies can improve their competitiveness and profitability if they can source required skills globally. Remittances can improve the balance of payments in recipient countries and destination countries can benefit from innovation, skills transfers and alleviate human capital shortages.
Most labour migration happens between two countries directly and is mostly governed by bilateral agreements to regulate recruitment, employment and the return of foreign workers. For example, South Africa has concluded agreements with Cuba, Iran and Tunisia for the temporary recruitment of doctors and professional health personnel to fill shortages in its public health sector.
Free movement of labour also forms an integral part of many regional economic integration initiatives. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC) have all adopted legal instruments dealing with the movement of persons or labour.
The Member States of COMESA and SADC are negotiating specific commitments on the temporary movement of services suppliers in the context of the liberalisation of trade in services. The Common Market Protocol of the EAC provides for different rules and procedures for entry, stay, work, establishment and residence for three categories of citizens (visitors, students, medical patients and persons in transit), workers and the self-employed. The occupational categories of workers covered by the Protocol are listed in a negotiated schedule of specific commitments and are linked to the schedule of specific commitments on the liberalisation of trade in services.
The three Regional Economic Communities (RECs) also deal to varying degrees with the many practical challenges facing labour migration such as recognition of qualifications, work permits and social security. For example, SADC developed a Code on Social Security which provides, among other things, that Member States should allow foreign workers to participate in social security schemes, ensure equal treatment and facilitate exportability of benefits. EAC Member States have not yet harmonised the portability of social security and retirement benefits, as well as work permits, application forms, procedures and fees. For example, applications vary from one State to another and require that supporting documents are determined by the class of work permit persons are applying for. Work permits are classified in different categories which are in some cases further subdivided into sub-categories. Work permit fees can vary between $16.50 and $3 000 and do not distinguish between foreigners and EAC citizens. However, Kenya and Rwanda have exempted EAC citizens from work permit fees.
The EAC Common Market Protocol also provides for the mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications. Various professional bodies such as those regulating accounting have developed mutual recognition agreements to enable labour mobility in professional services. Work on the possible recognition of foreign professional qualifications is on-going. In addition, the Inter-University Council for East Africa has developed an East Africa Qualifications Framework to assist with the harmonisation of education and training systems, skills competencies and qualifications. Equally, in 2011 SADC Ministers responsible for education and training approved the establishment of the SADC Regional Qualifications Framework to set minimum standards for quality assurance and to facilitate the recognition of qualifications in the SADC region.
The RECs are also making progress with regard to the ease of traveling to and within their regions. An East Africa passport is being used for travel within the EAC and plans are underway for an EAC tourist visa that would grant tourists from outside the EAC region access to all EAC States. Work on the development of a harmonised regional e-Immigration system is underway and would be an important information sharing tool for the implementation of the EAC Common Market Protocol. The system would enable EAC citizens to apply electronically for certain services such as visas, permits and passports without having to visit local immigration authorities in person. COMESA, for example, is considering the adoption of a COMESA business visa to facilitate the movement of business persons within the region. Similarly, plans are reportedly underway to develop a single tourist visa for the SADC region.
Unfortunately, traveling between and among the Member States of the three regional economic communities still pose many challenges. Some SADC Member States charge visa fees as high a $150 to SADC nationals. South Africa, for example, requires transit visas for citizens from countries such as Angola and DRC that are not exempted from visas. The transit visa is applicable for those traveling to neighbouring countries i.e. Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.
The COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Summit has identified the movement of business persons as key to facilitating trade, investment and overall business development and will, according to the Declaration Launching the Negotiations for the Establishment of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (FTA) of 12 June 2011, be negotiated during the first phase of the Tripartite FTA negotiations. A Tripartite Technical Committee on Movement of Business Persons was recently established to undertake the work of negotiating the movement of business persons. This committee had its first meeting during the week of 17 to 20 September 2013 and has a demanding work schedule to complete negotiations by June 2014.
The movement of business persons will be discussed within the framework of the proposed Annex on Movement of Business Persons of the draft Tripartite Free Trade Agreement. This Annex resembles the North American Free Trade Agreement's provisions on the movement of business persons. It does not mention any mobility-related aspects such as visa and work permit applications, procedures and fees; recognition of qualifications; social security and working conditions.
This seemingly lack of a comprehensive approach to the Tripartite FTA negotiations raises the question, given our regional integration experience, whether the present approach toward the negotiations is adequate in the contemporary global economy. Will the negotiation of market access commitments for certain categories of persons alone without addressing mobility-related aspects deliver any results? This important issue should be considered at this early stage of the negotiations. It provides an opportune time to reflect, in particular, on what initiatives exists already in the RECs; what lessons can be learned from this experience; and whether different approaches could be followed.
JB Cronjé is a tralac Researcher, and this article was originally published on the website of tralac.