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The Case for Migrants in South Africa

Amid a spate of xenophobic attacks against migrants in South Africa, anthropologist Zaheera Jinnah defends their presence, arguing that they contribute to the labor market with their mixed skills and informal employment.

Written by Zaheera Jinnah Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A child looks out from inside a deserted store in Germiston, near Johannesburg after the immigrant owner had removed his goods and left in fear of attack from local residents. AP/Shiraaz Mohamed

Southern Africa has a long history of internal and cross-border labor migration. Yet there are no firm statistics on the number of migrants in Southern Africa, and migration in the region is poorly understood and weakly managed.

In South Africa in particular, a country where unemployment has hovered at 25 percent over the last two decades, migrants have been regarded as a threat to citizens’ jobs and are the targets of xenophobic threats and violence.

However, the available data shows that migrant labor is not a contributing factor to the country’s high unemployment rate.

In fact, the number and proportion of international migrant workers in South Africa is small, and internal migration is the more common form of mobility. Furthermore, migration reflects and challenges the broader inequities of South Africa’s labor force and society.

A 2012 national labor force survey found that, of the 33 million people in the South African labor force, only 4 percent, or 1.2 million, were international migrants while 14 percent, or 4.7 million, were internal migrants.

More than a third of internal migrants in South Africa came from two major, poorer provinces: Limpopo (21 percent) and the Eastern Cape (17 percent) and moved toward the two provinces with the biggest economies in South Africa, Gauteng and the Western Cape. The latter have higher than national rates of in-migration of both domestic and international migrants.

International migrant workers do have better labor market outcomes than domestic migrants or locals – 77 percent participate in the labor force (compared to the national average of 55 percent) and 16 percent are unemployed (compared to the national average of 25 percent).

Yet, look at the data a little closer, and a more complex picture emerges than that of migrants dominating the labor force.

First, international migrants occupy a particularly precarious position in the labor market, characterized by insecurity and informality. International migrants are considerably less likely to be waged workers than domestic migrants or locals, and more likely to be own-account workers, unpaid family workers or self-employed. Further, 50 percent of international migrants were employed informally compared to a national average of 28 percent.

Second, gender matters. Men are more likely than women to move across an international border, but not within it. Men constitute 60 percent of the 1.2 million international migrants of working age in South Africa. However the gender distribution is more even among domestic migrants, of which 52 percent are men.

Women in South Africa, regardless of birthplace, tend to do poorly in the labor market in comparison to men. Women have a lower labor force participation rate at 49 percent, compared to 62 percent for men, and a higher unemployment rate at 28 percent, compared to 23 percent for men.

Third, migrants in South Africa are working in a mix of different types of occupations – 24 percent in managerial, professional or technical jobs, 28 percent in elementary and domestic work, and 21 percent in crafts, likely as self-employed artisans. And while the majority of migrants are from Southern Africa, there are also considerable numbers of workers from the rest of Africa, Europe, North America and Asia.

Finally, education matters in determining employment patterns. In general, the majority of South Africa’s workforce has a low educational status, with 45 percent of the working age population not completing secondary school, and only 10 percent of the population holding tertiary degrees. In contrast, 13 percent of international migrants have a post-school qualification.

So, although labor force data shows that migration positively correlates with employment, it is incorrect to assume that migrants are taking locals’ jobs.

Instead, the mix of different skill levels and high levels of informal and self employment among migrants suggests that they are contributing in various ways to a labor market characterized by low levels of education and skills, and an economy with few formal sector jobs.

What the data does strongly indicate is that low-skilled regional migrants, women in particular, face a precarious and vulnerable position in the labor market.

These are the real causes for concern in South Africa – the inability of rural areas, towns and cities to provide services and jobs for an increasing population, the lack of employment opportunities in a stagnant economy, the prevalence of informal work, and strong gendered differentials in accessing the labor market.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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