Kate Wilkinson ANALYSIS: Are foreigners stealing jobs in South Africa?

International migrants are often accused of stealing jobs from locals in South Africa. But new data presents a far more nuanced picture of what it means to be a migrant trying to make a living in the country.

With every outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, the refrain is the same. “The kwerekwere are stealing our jobs,” people say.

Shops are torched. Streets are barricaded. Tyres are set alight. Rocks become weapons. People are hacked, stabbed, shot and burned to death. Jubilant mobs hound Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis from their homes and businesses.

The claim that “foreigners” are taking jobs from South Africans“is an argument that is always made”, says Professor Loren Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits University. “As if it justifies killing.”

The most recent spate of violence in Gauteng, which swept through parts of Soweto, Kagiso, Alexandra and Langlaagte, claimed the lives of six people, including a one month old child.

‘I am not xenophobic’

Statements by some government ministers have done little to calm tensions.

In the weeks preceding the violence, Nomvula Mokonyane, the Minister of Water and Sanitation, commented on Facebook that in Kagiso “[a]lmost every second outlet (spaza) or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin (sic)…I am not xenophobic fellow comrades and friends but this is a recipe for disaster”.

And last week Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu told Business Day that “[f]oreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost… They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners”.

New data provides new insights

Following looting of foreign owned stores a Bangladeshi shop owner clears his shop on January 23, 2015. Photo: AFP/Stefan Heunis“The idea that people are here ‘stealing’ jobs and that they don’t have a right to be here needs to be corrected,” says Dr Zaheera Jinnah, an anthropologist and researcher at the ACMS.

Myths and misconceptions travel quickly. But new data, some of which has yet to be published, presents a far more nuanced picture of what it means to be a migrant from Africa or Asia and trying to make a living in South Africa.

The Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC), an organisation that examines migration and its impact on the South African labour market, released two studies last year that drew on labour data collected in 2012 by Statistics South Africa.

They found that 82% of the working population aged between 15 and 64 were “non-migrants”, 14% were “domestic migrants” who had moved between provinces in the past five years and just 4% could be classed as “international migrants”. With an official working population of 33,017,579 people, this means that around 1,2-million of them were international migrants.

A racial breakdown of the statistics reveals that 79% of international migrants were African, 17% were white and around three percent were Indian or Asian.

Jinnah said that there were misconceptions about the size of the international migrant community in South Africa. “There is a disconnect between perception and reality largely because there hasn’t been data available until now. So a lot of what has been said and reproduced is based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence or myths.”

MiWORC found that Gauteng province had the highest proportion of foreign-born workers with around 8% of the working population having been born in another country.

Limpopo and Mpumalanga had the next highest proportion of international migrants at 4%, followed by North West (3%), the Western Cape (3%), Free State (2%), Northern Cape (1%), Eastern Cape (1%) and KwaZulu-Natal (1%).

Low unemployment rates

International migrants are more likely to be employed than South Africans. According to the MiWORC data, international migrants in South Africa have much lower unemployment rates than others. This is unusual. In most other countries, international migrants tend to have higher unemployment rates than locals.

South Africa’s unemployment data shows that 26.16% of “non-migrants” are unemployed and 32.51% of “domestic migrants” are unemployed. By comparison, only 14.68% of international migrants are unemployed.

But while international migrants are less likely to be unemployed, most find themselves in positions of unstable, “precarious employment”. They don’t have access to benefits or formal work contracts.

International migrants in South Africa are more likely to take jobs that locals are not willing to take or find work in the informal sector.

According to the MiWORC research, 32.65% of international migrants are employed in the informal sector in South Africa compared to 16.57% of “non-migrants” and 17.97% of “domestic migrants”.

The studies suggest that this is because the informal sector offers the lowest entry cost into the labour market. The majority of international migrants also come from African countries which have large informal sectors.

Foreigners don’t dominate informal sector

A street barber cuts the hair of a customer in his barber shop in the Diepkloof area of Soweto on June 30, 2013. Photo: AFP/Odd AndersonAccording to MiWORC’s research, international migrants are far more likely to run their own businesses. Eleven percent are “employers” and 21% are classed as “self-employed”. By comparison, only 5% of non-migrants and domestic migrants were employers and only 9% of non-migrants and 7% of domestic migrants were self-employed.

Late last year, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory – a collaborative project between Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and the provincial government –  conducted a limited survey of the informal sector in Johannesburg.

Dr Sally Peberdy, a senior researcher at the Observatory – says that the belief that international migrants dominate the informal sector is false.  “We found that less than two out of 10 people who owned a business in the informal sector [in Johannesburg] were cross-border migrants.”

Peberdy argues that international migrants do play a positive role in South Africa. “The evidence shows that they contribute to South Africa and South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods.”

The Observatory’s study, which is due to be published tomorrow, found that 31% of the 618 international migrant traders interviewed rented properties from South Africans. Collectively they also employed 1,223 people, of which 503 were South Africans.

This article was commissioned by the Sunday Times.


Additional reading:

How many Zimbabweans live in South Africa? The numbers are unreliable

Is South Africa the largest recipient of asylum-seekers worldwide? The numbers don’t add up

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Comment on this report

Comments 12
  1. By Ronnie Mavhunga

    I think the South African government should just make a bigger effort of documenting as many immigrants as possible. have some form of an ID. it should help in the fight against crime. People are willing to get asylum papers but they’re so hard to get especially around Gauteng where there’s only one center. If everyone is documented it will be easy to control criminal elements in our midst.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Gilbert

    Great to get some stats on this issue! Being a Zimbabwean, I find myself arguing against the anti-foreigner sentiments prevalent in South Africa even among the more” educated” people. Do you think maybe more candour between African governments about accountability and how to resolve economic, political and social problems in their countries would stem the tide and maybe even encourage immigrants to return?

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Cliff

    “[a]lmost every second outlet (spaza) or even former general dealer
    shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin (sic)…I am not
    xenophobic fellow comrades and friends but this is a recipe for
    disaster”… Sounds like that bigot you find at every bar, “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black…”


    This is a recipe for disaster mostly for the ANC, they’re burning bridges with the rest of Africa, and their handling of this crisis is leading many rational minds to question their own support for the party. Along with loadshedding and Nkandlagate this could possibly be the biggest catalyst for change since Nelson Mandela was given his freedom.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Clinton

    Good to see the stats but they also highlight a concern. Why are 14.68 percent unemployed and why are 32.6 percent working in the informal sector?

    This shows how lax the entry requirements for foreigners coming to South Africa are. Any other country eh. USA, Australia and the like have much more stringent requirements, chief are remind them that you bring valuable skills to the country and that you can show that you have a confirmed employment.

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Charles H Schulmann

    We can certainly learn from foreigners how they manage their
    funds when they earn less than many .
    They then consolidate their earnings to start small businesses after leaving their low paying employment .
    Some of them form a chain of small businesses in which they employ both local and foreign people .

    They rise to the opportunities when offered low paying jobs where they prove their worth and productivity such that the employers then rectify their wages .

    With all due respect we have to somehow empower and equip any employee to be as productive as possible so that cost of production alows South Africa to be more competitive .

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Christine Troester

    Nobody prevents locals from opening spaza shops and working 15 hours a day. It seems the migrants have more drive and are wlling to work hard.

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Marcel

    Is there any chance we can also get stats on people incarcerated and awaiting trial for xenophobic attacks? With the raids that took place , these stats just become even more important.

    Reply Report comment
  8. By P Soobramoney

    I do agreed with a fellow colleague on the forum that more stricter measures should be applied when foreign parties enter Southafrica
    To seek employment or even to run their own business.

    With that said ,there should be a proper check and balance in place
    to measure the influx of these people entering South Africa.Opening Spaza shops and barber shops are creating job opportunities for them
    but are they in turn employing any of our local citizens.If we Look at the bigger picture,how much of the South African revenue leaves this country rather than enters it.More so on the automobile trade in this country.

    We the locals work hard and try to conduct business as best as possible and try to “live not just” survive. We have families to feed and take care off within the country,but the competition is just to great.The foreigners are just flooding the market and sending the majority of monies back to their home countries. “We love them ,but there is a limit when it comes to eating from the same pie”.

    Speaking to one of the foreigners,he says Pakistan is a lovely country and its rich in wealth,then the question arises why are you guys leaving your country for others.”I just need to understand Y”

    Reply Report comment
  9. By Tebogo

    Do they have licences to open and run those shops? No they dont but we south africans will be harrassed by our own. I will be sent from pillar to post if i want to open a spaza

    Reply Report comment
  10. By Janice Chigumbu

    All the same, everyone needs to survive and to take care of his or her responsibilities most probably for those who have families so foreigners should also be accommodated in the industry because even the local South African citizens do learn some important aspects from foreigners and to have both local and foreign people in a country can even benefits the country as a whole.

    Reply Report comment
  11. By Phil Cohen

    A small number of international migrants employ South Africans. A small number of international migrants have skills that South Africans do not have. But the overwhelming majority of international migrants compete for work with ordinary South Africans. And when there are more people looking for work than there are jobs, employers can hire whoever is willing to work for the least pay. That’s a great deal for bosses, even if the only person they’re hiring is a cleaner or a nanny, but it’s a bad deal for everyone else.

    Yes, international migrants spend money in South Africa, which keeps some South Africans employed. But I would be very surprised if it balances out the number of South Africans un- and under-employed because of competition for work from foreigners. If there’s research that says otherwise, I’d like to see it.

    Reply Report comment
  12. By Gloria

    Actually I have a lot of South Africans working here in Angola as expatriates so let us all respect each other, one can also argue that these South Africans here are taking our jobs. Especially the fact that Expats earn more than locals.

    Reply Report comment

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