In the city where I live, Cape Town, it's not unusual to hear a foreign accent or see a foreigner. Foreigners are part of the intricate web, not only of the Cape's economy, but also of the rest of South Africa.
Foreigners arouse one's curiosity. Some are treated better than others, but there are always questions in people's minds - how did they make their entry into South Africa? Where did they come from? Why did they come here? Who employs them?
Despite our talk of African Ubuntu, black on black violence easily flares when African immigrants compete with domestic labour, especially in the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors. What does this mean for South Africa's economy given our history of xenophobia?
At the heart of the problem is the view that foreigners are seen as taking away local jobs. There is some truth to this, but foreigners also contribute to the economy as well as creating jobs just like my father did when he arrived from India and set up a little enterprise in South Africa.
In Cape Town, African immigrants occupy low wage or casual positions, such as cashiers in supermarkets, security guards, waitrons at restaurants, parking meter attendants in the central business district and so on. After twenty-years of democracy, this new wave of African labour from the rest of the continent is normal.
Everyday conversations with African immigrants reveal that many are educated, but cannot find employment in their own countries either due to hostile political conditions or poor economic growth.
Many also originate from countries with economies that are highly resource dependent and have insufficient economic diversification to capture the educated work force.
Foreign migrant labour in South Africa is unique compared to other countries. A recent report by the Migration for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC) notes that South Africa is unique because international migrants are less discriminated against than migrants elsewhere in the world.
The report states, "An international migrant with the same age, gender, level of education, belonging to the same population group and residing in the same place as a native South African, has a higher probability of being employed than the latter."
Why this anomaly?
To answer the question bluntly, South Africa's international migrants are loved by some sectors of the economy and loathed by others.
This preference for foreign labour is not new. The reason lies in our apartheid past. South Africa has a history of migrant labour programmes embedded in the mining sector and related industries. Foreign black labour was used as a buffer against indigenous labour where local labour was considered 'unruly' and lacking compliance with the needs of mining capital.
The issue of labour 'discipline' and compliance raised its ugly head again recently with the longest strike in the mining sector led by the Association for Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), sharpening the debate even further. The media routinely interviewed foreign workers who were openly critical of South Africa's striking mineworkers for making unreasonable demands.
Migrant workers come from as far afield as Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique, and closer to home, from Lesotho and Swaziland. The difference in the post-apartheid era is that migrant labour is drawn from even further afield than neighbouring Southern African states. New migrant labour employment is also far more diversified and dispersed within the South African economy compared to the past.
The phenomenon of migration is easy to observe, but the paradox of high migrant labour employment against high domestic unemployment is hard to make sense of. Commenting on the findings of the MiWORC report, Carol Paton of Business Day writes, "In South Africa, foreign migrants have an 81% rate of employment, compared to South African non-migrants, whose rate of employment is 65%."
The MiWORC report notes that international migrants with higher education than domestic labour are more likely to be active in the informal sector than domestic migrants and non-migrant workers.
In sectors where trade unions are dominant, foreign black migrant workers find more restricted routes of employment. They are more likely to engage in short-term employment or participate as short-term contract workers.
The report notes that they are employed in precarious work. In other words, they are employed in positions where job security is poor. Many are employed in the low-level services sector where unionisation rates are low.
The MiWORC report has no statistical information on what the level of wages or income is for migrant workers compared to domestic labour, nor is there information about the concentration of this labour geographically. It also doesn't develop sufficient information about preferences in the private and public sectors.
However, it does note that despite the post-1994 dispensation, labour preference practice has continuity with the past. Whites get first preference, followed by Indians, coloureds and then blacks.
Reading the report, one concludes that domestic labour is even lower in the preference hierarchy in South Africa in recent years.
One suspects that the added incentive for hiring foreign labour is related to the fact that this group makes low wage demands, as they are always vulnerable to dismissal or the threat of expulsion from the country. They are thus an easily exploitable group.
It would not be difficult to speculate that international migrants find higher rates of labour integration in the private sector compared to the public sector. The exception occurs where they possess very specialised skills or high levels of education in areas where domestic labour is still in shortage. These would be in professions such as university lecturers, doctors, engineers, accountants and so on.
What we can deduce from the report is that international migration has been significant in the post-apartheid era. Migration policy may look co-ordinated on paper, but in reality our borders have become more porous either through poor policing or corruption at immigration centres.
The exact numbers of international migrants in South Africa remains a number around which there is much statistical dispute between official figures and estimates from non-official sources.
But migration is not a one-way phenomenon. It also happens because there is internal accommodation and a preference bias in the labour market, which explains the high rate of foreign employment.
Labour brokers possibly facilitate much of this. These agencies have their own political connections with the top brass of the country, including black empowerment arrangements that entrench their legitimacy.
Despite labour unions calling for the banning of labour brokers, these proposals will probably fall on deaf policy ears given the deep vested interests in a sector worth billions of rands, as a result of handling close to a million workers a year.
As is evident, immigration as it were, is not only the result of the immigrant's initiative, but also due to inherent biases in the South African economy. This is why this issue is more complex than meets the eye.
There appears to be a preference divide between the private and public economy and this divide influences patterns of employment and displacement in the workforce.
Domestic male black labourers have been the worst off judging from labour preference trends for both international migrants and domestic female workers.
The issue of foreign migrant labour must be better understood.
Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.
Read more articles by Saliem Fakir.