Changes parliament is poised to make to South Africa’s immigration laws will do much more than just exacerbate this country’s skills shortage. They will reinforce a bizarre, apartheid-style labour system that’s been quietly developing over the past decade. In combination, the unintended consequences of SA’s education, skills development, immigration and labour policies have created a system that keeps skilled – predominately white – South Africans in the pound seats. However, it offers unskilled South Africans – the vast majority of whom are poor and black – an unworkable deal. In their quest to find jobs, unskilled and unemployed South Africans face increasingly stiff competition from millions of jobseekers who come into SA illegally from other African states. Undocumented foreigners – the SA Police Force estimates there are 6m living here – aren’t subjected to labour laws and minimum wages. That means they find low-skilled, informal jobs far more easily than many South Africans.While that’s a key driver of xenophobic violence, unskilled, unemployed South Africans are further disadvantaged by the State schooling system. Pupils often matriculate or leave school early without adequate literacy and numeracy levels required to acquire the kind of high-level skills Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has promised to accelerate.Nzimande’s plan is to ensure the Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas) and the Further Education and Training (FET) colleges start rising to the challenge of building the kind of skills SA’s economy needs. He says it’s unacceptable 75% to 80% of the courses offered by Setas are short ones giving training in so-called “low skills”. “We need to begin to be more biased towards a structured occupational trade and professional programme, because that’s where we’re short,” Nzimande said before tabling his 2011/2012 Budget vote in Parliament.But even if SA’s Seta, FET and university systems are expanded, made more efficient and enrol more students in courses designed to impart higher skills levels, deficient learning and teaching in many public schools will keep graduation levels low – as the 2009 FET college results show: just 4% of all FET students passed.In stark contrast to the position unskilled and unemployed South Africans find themselves in, those occupying a high-skilled position (mainly whites) have seen their salaries almost triple over the past decade. Research by recruitment company Adcorp shows remuneration for that group has escalated, in inflation-adjusted terms, by 286,4% since 2000. This group also has little, if any, competition. The immigration system insulates them from it by making it difficult for companies to bring in skilled workers from other countries. Adcorp labour analyst Loane Sharp says: “Workplaces in SA are overwhelmingly South African. For example, if you go to a Japanese company, such as Nomura Securities, 30% of its employees in every meeting aren’t Japanese but are from other parts of the world. Employees in SA’s financial services industry are almost exclusively South African.” When the Immigration Act of 2002 became law, it was billed as one that would “open the country’s borders to skilled people”.However, poor implementation – coupled to the politics about the fact that it was introduced by IFP leader and then Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi – meant it had largely the opposite effect. In 2004, when the ANC replaced Buthelezi with his deputy, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (ANC), she argued SA had the capacity to generate its own skills and, therefore, employ its own people.This view was supported by the likes of Black Management Forum chairman Jimmy Manyi, who is now also Government’s spokesman. He argued SA’s skills shortage was a myth peddled by racist companies who don’t want to hire black graduates.Immigration specialist and lawyer Julian Pokroy says the effect of all that “precipitated incredible shortages in some spheres. This crisis is compounded by the fact SA loses so many of its bright young graduates of all races – not just white – to other countries (which offer higher salaries and global opportunities in scarce fields).”While Manpower SA’s latest survey (2011) confirms 14% of this country’s businesses are struggling to fill key positions, Adcorp’s research pegs the total number of vacant positions for high skilled workers at 829 800. These include a range of occupations such as senior management, the professions (medicine, engineering, accounting and law), technical occupations (specialised technicians and artisans) and agriculture.The Colleges of Medicine of SA (CMSA) says this country has around 5 000 specialists: it needs 13 000. It has 13 000 general practitioners but needs another 20 000. The SA Paediatric Association says there’s one paediatric surgeon for every 1,75m South Africans. There’s also the reality that newly qualified South African GPs who want to specialise battle to find funded registrar posts at training hospitals. The fact that 1 400 registrar posts have remained unfunded and vacant for the past decade means GPs often have no choice but to go overseas to specialise. But even if Government had already got its (primary, secondary and tertiary) education and skills development systems in sync so these systems were in a position to start producing the skills required – especially high-level skills – it would take years before SA’s economy began reaping the benefits of that turnaround.Government acknowledges skills gaps need to be filled immediately by making it easier for companies to hire critical skills. But it seems changes to SA’s immigration laws will, if implemented, make it much harder to hire a foreigner. The Immigration Amendment Bill – which has been approved by Parliament’s National Assembly and which is currently before the National Council of Provinces – aims to fuse various work permits previously available to foreigners into one: the critical skills permit. Government will decide if the overseas applicant wanting to come to SA to look for work or take up a position here has skills that are indeed part of its critical skills list. Government will also decide what skills are on that critical list.“The private sector, which is the biggest employer of people with those scarce skills and which is in tune with what skills are required, will have no say as to what skills are on this list. The list will be compiled by a bureaucrat,” says Pokroy.The amendments will give Government more say in whether offshore investors or foreign nationals receive business or corporate permits. The business permit will only be issued if the venture the applicant wants to set up or invest in is in line with sectors Government deems to be central to job creation.The corporate work permit, which was previously issued to companies wanting to bring in many employees from overseas, will, according to the amendments, also be aligned with the critical skills list. For example, SA’s large mining companies could previously apply for a substantial number of permits for a group of employees it needed to bring in. Under the amended legislation they will have to justify each permit on a case by case basis.Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma acknowledges the value of immigration and its contribution to economic prosperity but she defends the changes to SA’s immigration law, saying it will simplify the recruitment of scarce skills and tighten loopholes.Pokroy understands the need to tighten up a system that was – thanks to improper implementation and monitoring – open to abuse in the past but says the new regime is effectively an attempt to “bureaucratically dictate” to business and industry.While that will further insulate skilled South Africans from any global competition, Government has questions to answer about its inability to ensure policies and laws are consistent with the national vision of employment and economic growth.