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FACTSHEET: Skill, work & education levels of foreign-born migrants in South Africa

This factsheet sets out what we do – and what we don’t – know about the skills, work, and education levels of foreign-born migrants in South Africa.

This article is more than 7 years old

“Why are they here?” Are foreigners ”stealing South African jobs” as is often claimed? Or do foreign-born migrants actually create jobs, as others say. What different sort of roles do migrants play in the economy?

This factsheet sets out what we do – and what we don’t – know about the skills, work, and education levels of foreign-born migrants in South Africa.

What data do we have?

According to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the third quarter of 2012, one in 25 of the country’s working-age population was foreign-born. At the time, this represented 1.2 million people.

The survey gathers data on the labour market activities of 15- to 64-year-olds. The data on migration was last added in 2012 and it might again be added next year, Diego Iturralde, chief director of demography at Statistics South Africa, told Africa Check.

Analysis of the 2012 data – published by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC) in 2014 – found that foreign-born migrants are:

These findings, showing that foreign-born migrants are more likely than locally-born South Africans to be self-employed or employers than employees shows the claim of migrants “stealing jobs” is unfounded. The point indicates that where foreign-born migrants are employed it is more likely not “stealing” anyone else’s job, but doing work no-one else is willing to do.

The employment anomaly

According to Stats SA’s Census 2011: Migration Dynamics in South Africa report, 63.1% of foreign-born migrants were employed. As mentioned, these migrants are more likely than locally-born South Africans to be employed – an anomaly apparently linked to the greater willingness of foreign-born migrants to take on jobs that locally-born South Africans are not willing to do.

Of the employed foreign-born migrants, six in ten (62.6%) were employed in the formal sector while employment in the informal sector and private households made up 17.2% and 17.1% respectively (3.1% were unsure of their sector).

Another study, which looked at individual jobs as opposed to enterprise, produced different results. It found that half of foreign-born workers – the majority – were informally employed. It also found that foreign-born migrants were more likely than locally-born South Africans to be informally employed.

Both the formal (64.9%) and informal sectors (71.6%) are dominated by migrants from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. Almost three quarters (73.6%) of migrants who work in private houses are from these countries.

White foreign-born migrants were less likely to be employed in the informal sector than African/black migrants. “This could be explained by the fact that most [white foreign-born migrants] enter South Africa as expatriates working for international firms and as academics and highly-skilled professionals with employment guaranteed prior to departure,” explains Fauvelle-Aymar.

The Stats SA migration dynamics report found there was a link between foreign-born migrants’ level of education and the sector in which they were employed. Eighty percent of those with higher education were employed in the formal sector.

Foreign-born migrants vary in their level of educational attainment

According to the 2011 Census, 39% of foreign-born migrants had completed secondary or higher education. Seven percent did not attend school at all. International migrants from the SADC region were found to be the least educated of all.

Only 16% of international migrants had completed higher education, and here there were strong splits depending on the region of the migrants’ origin: while nearly two-thirds of migrants from North America and half of those from Latin America and the Caribbean had higher education, only about a quarter of African and Asian migrants did.  

There were also differences in the education levels of men and women. StatsSA’s migration dynamics report explained that female migrants were more educated than their male counterparts, and more females proportionally also had higher education. This gender difference was seen in African immigrants but not among immigrants from Europe and North America. Female immigrants from other African countries were more educated than female immigrants from the SADC region.  

Migrant employment is shifting from mining and farming to trade and services

The Green Paper on International Migration in South Africa (June 2016) notes a shift away from the dominance of the traditional migrant-labour sectors of mining and farming among foreign-born migrants.

According to the migration research consortium, the most popular employment sectors for foreign-born migrants are trade (30% of these migrants work in this sector), services (12%), construction (12%) and private households (11%). The latter typically involves domestic work, gardening and child care.

However, mining and agriculture still rank high if one considers the proportion of foreign-born versus locally-born workers per sector. Eight percent of workers in mining and 7% in agriculture are foreign born. At the lower end, it is 1% for utilities and 3% in the services sector.

Around 70% of foreign-born workers are classified as unskilled (28%) and semi-skilled (42%) – the share for locally-born South Africans was 18% and 35% respectively – but, that doesn’t mean foreign-born migrants are not skilled. A report from the migration research consortium on foreign-born health professionals in the public health-care sector found that foreign personnel accounted for 1.5% (2,640 of 173,080) of qualified staff. This is based on 2013 data from the Personnel Salary System (PERSAL).

Edited by Nechama Brodie and Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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