Attracting foreign critical skills in line with National Development Plan: Home Affairs & Engineering Council of SA briefing

Home Affairs

25 August 2015
Chairperson: Mr B Mashile (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) briefed the Committee on its role in attracting foreign skills, especially critical skills, in line with the National Development Plan (NDP). Its primary mandate was to regulate the engineering profession, which it did through the registration of engineering practitioners. The ECSA’s regulations did not include matters relating to competence, code of conduct, quality and standards.

 

It revealed that out of every 100 engineering practitioners, only 38 were registered, whereas 52 were unregistered but economically active. The remaining 10% were probably unemployed or working outside the engineering field. The high number of unregistered engineers was due to the fact that the term “engineer,” or “engineering,” was not well defined in South Africa and there was no legal mechanism to protect the term. Furthermore, registering with the ECSA was not compulsory. These factors were viewed as major defects of the Engineering Profession Act, 2000.

 

In regulating those practising engineering, the ECSA had registered 3 327 foreign nationals. About 1 600 of these were professional engineering practitioners registered in different categories and disciplines. Besides those registered, there were many unregistered foreign nationals working in South Africa. In addition, there were multiple engineering consulting firms. There were international students who came from various countries to South Africa to study engineering courses and who, after completion, did not leave. To be able to work in South Africa, foreign engineers required working visas -- either critical skills visas or treaty visas. In this respect, the ECSA had engaged with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) regarding the management of the influx of foreign engineering practitioners into the country.

The DHA said that in support of the NDP, it had introduced a critical skills visa in expectation of attracting foreign skills. The recent amendment to the immigration policy had required the DHA to regulate the flow of foreign skills in a collaborative manner. Stakeholders had provided the DHA with more information for the better management of immigration, and that information had guided the DHA in the issuance of critical skills visas. This was not how it had been in the past. What had become apparent to the DHA was that there had previously been a lot of fraud involved in applications for critical visas.

 

Since the introduction of the new immigration regulations, numerous engagements had been held in order to provide advocacy and awareness on them, and a long-term relationship with ECSA had been established to enable a smooth facilitation of the issuance of critical skills work visas. This visa had come into effect with the new Act and the new immigration policy that had been implemented on 26 May 2014. As a result of the changes, there had been a need to develop a critical skills list that would support and enable the implementation of the new visa. The list had been developed to address the skills needs of the objectives of the NDP, and the national key projects generally.

Both the DHA and ECSA had identified issues of fraudulent and corruption as major challenges, and Members felt that they should work in collaboration with the Department of Police to fight against corruption and fraudulent applications. They were of the view that the Engineering Profession Act, 2000 should be amended to compel all engineers to register, and to protect the term “engineers.” They also felt that there was an urgent need for transformation in the engineering sector by creating mechanisms that would retain new black graduates in the profession.

Meeting report

The Chairperson said the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) would be briefing Committee on how it fitted in with the process of attracting foreign skills, covering issues such as which foreign engineers could be allowed in the country and who was a bona fide engineer. The Committee would be advised of the role of the ECSA in contributing to theSouth African economy. Members from other committees which dealt with issues related to construction would also be attending the meeting. He noted apologies from Ms S Nkomo (IFP), Ms O Maxon (EFF), and Ms N Mnisi (ANC) for their absence

Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA): Briefing

Adv Rebaone Gaoraelwe, Executive: Regulatory Functions, apologised for the absence of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who would have briefed the Committee. He had been working with the DHA, however, and understood the matter in question very well. Accordingly, he would be briefing the Committee in lieu of the CEO.

He said the role of ECSA was derived from the Constitution, in particular its section 22, which was given substance by the Engineering Profession Act 46 of 2000. The ECSA’s primary mandate was to regulate the engineering profession, and it used registration as a tool to regulate it. The four primary areas of regulation were:

  • Policy, standards and procedures development;
  • Registration, accreditation and quality assurance;
  • Professional conduct management; and
  • Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

ECSA was not restricted to only these areas. It played other important roles, such as the evaluation of foreign qualifications, identification of engineering work, recognition of voluntary associations, international relations and benchmarking and advising the Minister of Public Works on matters of engineering interest. The engineering profession had a huge societal benefit, which was gained through competition in the engineering sector.

 

Adv Gaoraelwe explained in more detail categories of registration. Individuals could be registered as candidates, professionals or in specific categories. The candidate category included candidate engineer, candidate engineering technologist, candidate certificated engineering and candidate engineering technician, while the professionals included professional engineer, professional engineering technologist, professional certificated engineering and professional engineering technician. Individual could also be registered under specified categories such as lifting inspectors, lifting machinery inspectors, medical equipment maintainers, and fire protection system inspectors.

The ECSA did not regulate engineering matters related to competence, codes of conduct, quality and standards.

Out of every 100 engineering practitioners, only 38 were registered, whereas 52 were unregistered but economically active. The remaining 10% were either unemployed or, probably, employed outside the engineering field. The high number of unregistered engineers was due to the fact that the term “engineer,” or “engineering,” was not well defined in South Africa, and there was no legal mechanism to protect the term. On top of this, registration was not compulsory and employers were not compelled to employ registered engineers. However, in other African countries, such as Tanzania and Nigeria, an individual could not call him/herself an engineer if not registered as such.

He emphasised that the ECSA did not employ those who were practising engineering, but only regulated them.

In terms of regulating those practising engineering, the ECSA had registered 3 327 foreign nationals. About 1 600 of these were professionals registered in different categories and disciplines. Irrespective of the figure of registered foreign nationals, there were many unregistered foreign nationals working in South Africa. In addition, there were multiple engineering consulting firms. There were also international students who came from various countries to South Africa to study engineering courses and who, after completion, did not leave.

In principle, foreign engineering practitioners required working visas. These included critical skills visas and treaty visas. In this respect, the ECSA engaged constantly with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) regarding the management of the influx of foreign engineering practitioners into South Africa.

Adv Gaoraelwe said there had been a public outcry triggered by the Free State Provincial Government’s employment of Cuban engineers. However, in registering foreign engineers, the country of origin was an irrelevant factor. Determinant factors were rather competence and substantially equivalent qualifications. It was therefore unfair to conclude that Cuban engineers were preferred. Concerning employment, ECSA’s mandate did not extend to issues around who and where engineers could be employed.

In recognising and evaluating qualifications, the ECSA looked at educational standards and individual competence. The standards were measured against the educational standards set out in the Washington, Sydney and Dublin Accords. It was problematic when foreign engineers hailed from countries such as Cuba, France, Germany and Zimbabwe, which were not signatories to all three Accords. The fact that an individual come from non-signatory country could not be translated to mean that they were not qualified. Zimbabwe, for example, was one of those countries that produced highly qualified engineers.

As from 3 June 2014, new approaches in registering foreign engineers had been introduced for no other reason than to comply with the new immigration measures. Regulations to the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 as amended, enjoined the ECSA to issue letters to applicants for critical skills visas, which provided that (i) the applicants had to possess the skills or qualifications and appropriate post-qualification experience and (ii) the applicants had to prove that they had applied for registration with the ECSA.

The DHA had been urged to verify the authenticity of letters submitted by foreign nationals, because some of them submitted forged letters. High levels of fraudulent attempts at obtaining working visas had been identified as a major challenge. Included in the challenges were applications for registration with ECSA when foreign engineers were already in the country, and the treaty visas. Concerning treaty visas, the ECSA had been informed by the DHA that through treaty visas, foreign engineers could work. However, the ECSA had no details of foreign nationals working in South Africa on treaty visas.

At the time of the briefing, the ECSA had requested information from the DHA with a record of all foreign engineers to whom critical skills visas had been issued. More fundamentally, critical skills should be distinguished from scarce skills. The regulations did not make such a distinction. Furthermore, there was no evidence that South Africa had a shortage of engineering capacity. Accordingly, the issue of attracting foreign engineering skills was met with resistance due to what appeared to be sufficient capacity in the country.

In conclusion, Adv. Gaoraelwe urged the DHA to increase collaboration with ECSA and the private sector prior to bringing foreign engineering skills into South Africa. Given that foreign engineers tended to forge letters, there was a need to collaborate with the police in order to detect and arrest foreign nationals who forged qualifications and letters from ECSA. Combating high levels of corruption within the DHA was a must. The DHA should also issue a critical skills visa to foreign engineers while they were still in their countries of origin, provided that their applications for registration with ECSA had been approved. The same approach that was applied to foreign athletics should be adopted. For example, no foreign footballer could play in a South African team before meeting all the requirements.

Discussion

The Chairperson sought clarity on progress regarding a request made to review the Engineering Profession Act, 2000, in order to give protection to the term “engineer” and to ensure the integrity of the engineering profession.

Adv. Gaoraelwe responded that there had been numerous efforts by the ECSA to initiate the Bill, but these efforts had been frustrated by politicians. The reluctance of the politicians to prove the amendment proposal was based on the argument that the ECSA was not transformed. Regardless of such an argument, the ECSA was intending to introduce a Bill amending the principal Act.

With regard to transformation, the Chairperson requested a report providing the demographics of engineering practitioners. It seemed that young graduates were not being recruited simply because they lacked practical experience. He sought clarity on the visa that had been issued to a Nigerian person for the purpose of volunteering in Republic as an engineer, and who was making news. The way he understood the work of ECSA was to ensure that South African infrastructure, such as buildings and bridges, would not collapse over time, but were quality assured. The issue of engaging the police should be taken seriously. He suggested that the Commissioner of the Police should be brought on board.

As it was not clear if South Africa was experiencing a shortage in the engineering sector, he suggested that a survey be conducted to evaluate the country’s engineering capacity.

Ms D Raphuti (ANC) felt that voluntary registration was problematic, and was of the view that the unwillingness of certain individuals to register as engineers implied that they did not hold the qualifications they claimed to have. Why was the Nigerian approach being praised while their churches were collapsing? Emphasis should be placed on issuing critical skills work visas, provided that there was a job advertised and a foreign engineer applicant had registered with the ECSA. Clarity was sought on problems associated with a BTech degree -- why were BTech graduates not employed? Was it because they were more theoretical-oriented than practical? How should they be integrated into the engineering sector?

Ms N Bilankulu (ANC) sought clarity on why the DHA was not initiating the amendment to the Engineering Profession Act. How many cases of fraudulent applications had been reported to the police? Could the case numbers be furnished with the Committee?

Ms J Maluleke (ANC) asked whether there was a mechanism for ensuring that foreign engineers with skills that were rare or not available in South Africa, equipped South Africans with such skills. What was the problem with regard to transformation? Was it due to the tests or examinations for recognition of an individual as an engineer too difficult? How could the challenges black people were facing to become professional engineers be alleviated?

Ms T Kenye (ANC) asked how many black South Africans were registered as engineers. This information could eliminate misconceptions that foreign nationals were taking the jobs of South Africans. She referred to the April 2015 xenophobic unrest which had been mainly caused by competition between citizens and non-citizens in the labour market. Mechanisms to resolve the question of having a high number of unregistered engineers were imperative. How often did the ECSA engage with the DHA?

Mr L Basson (DA) said he could not agree that South Africa had sufficient engineering skills. He believed South Africa was facing a skills shortage. The government tended to employ Cuban hydraulic engineers, alleging that skilled people in this area were unavailable. This argument was not true. The Cuban engineers had been brought into the Republic for the wrong reasons. Although they were preferred, Cuba was not a signatory to the Washington Accord. The pertinent question was why South Africa could not train its own engineers instead of spending more than R90 million per annum on Cuban engineers. Why could the ECSA not establish a “Cape Town Code” stating, among other things, that a foreign engineer could not work in South Africa if his/her country did not adhere to Washington, Sydney and Dublin Codes? It was imperative to make the country safer for its people.

Mr AM Figlan (DA) also expressed his concern about the 52% of unregistered engineers. He sought clarity on other gaps in the regulation of the engineering sector that had the potential to inhibit quality assurance.

Mr D Gumede (ANC) said it was important for each country to protect its citizens. The interest of the citizens always came first. It seemed that South Africa’s democracy was being undermined by allowing an influx of immigrants. The Department of the Police should be effectively engaged so as to protect the labour market. The Commissioner of Police should be engaged in the discussions so she could understand the problem of investigating cases related to fraudulent applications or forged documents.

He was of the view that the treaty visa was a political matter that should be solved politically. On the issue of employing graduates, he said that two graduates had come to see him on the question of recruiting them as candidate engineers. Although he had tried his best to assist them, they were unable to access the engineering sector as engineering practitioners, and had ended up teaching in colleges.

He said that in the Free State, highly qualified engineers were objecting to deployment to the rural areas because of the lack of amenities, such as the best schools and hospitals. This was a major problem.

Mr B Nesi (ANC) sought clarity on whether there was a database of all engineers – either employed or unemployed, and either citizens or non-citizens. He supported the suggestion of amending the engineering profession legislation to compel all engineers to register.

The Chairperson commented that if the term “engineering” was not defined and protected, it could be extended to include journalists who were calling themselves “media engineers.” He was of the view that the Department of Public Works was well positioned to assist in taking a firm stance towards the engineering profession. There was a huge number of engineering graduates facing the predicament of trying to find a placement that would equip with them practical engineering training. The issue should be looked into by the ECSA and DHA.

Adv. Gaoraelwe responded that he was not in a position to respond to all questions posed, because he was not able to consult the ECSA’s database. He would prefer to answer most of the questions in writing. Registration with the ECSA was procedural, and the registration fee was R5 000.

South African graduates who were retained, were placed under reviews. However, they tended to justify their non-qualification on the basis of racial and gender prejudices. The ECSA was therefore recording interviews to illustrate that no one was prejudiced in the process. With regard to establishment of a data base, the ECSA could not establish a database that encompassed all the details beyond those for individuals who approached it, or registered with it.

He said that transformation was not negotiable, and necessary. With regard to how often the ECSA engaged the DHA, he said the engagements were not at the level they were supposed to be. However, the two last engagements had been productive. On the issue of employing Cuban engineers, he responded that the ECSA’s mandate was restricted to ensuring that they were qualified or had the required competency. It was the Government’s discretion to employ whoever it wanted. On the question of the BTech degree, he responded that the matter was under consideration.

The Chairperson requested a report on the qualifications, providing detailed information on their differences. He sought clarity on whether foreign graduates in engineering who did not leave South Africa were granted permanent residence permits. How should South African graduates have access to community services?

Ms Kenye sought clarity on whether South African citizens were given priority, before recruiting was conducted outside the country.

Mr Nesi expressed his concern about the R5 000 registration fee, and said that this might be a major obstacle to needy graduates. The ECSA should find a way of reducing the amount.

Mr M Johnson (ANC) said that attracting foreign skills formed part of the 2030 vision. South Africa did not have enough skills to sustain its economy. Included in the 2010 vision was the development of South African skills. What programmes had been drawn up to develop local skills? In India, for example, a million information technology (IT) practitioners per annum was targeted and upon graduation, they were deployed around the world. South Africa should also have a target of producing engineers. Some would argue that this was not possible, because the higher learning institutions were independent.

The Chairperson agreed that higher learning institutions were not responding to the NDP and continued to work as if the NDP did not exist. Higher learning institutions should make a shift in their policies and work towards the realisation of the NDP.

Adv. Gaoraelwe said that it would be best if all these questions were responded to in writing. He had noted questions, comments and inputs. The differences between the BTech and college diplomas were of a technical nature.

He agreed with Mr Nesi that the registration fee might be an inhibitor factor for registration. On this issue, the ECSA would apply its mind on how to include the needy graduates.

DHA on implementation of critical skills visa

Mr Jackson McKay, Deputy Director General: Immigration Services, DHA, said that in support of the National Development Plan (NDP), the DHA had introduced a critical skills visa in expectation of attracting foreign skills. The recent amendment to the immigration policy had required the DHA to regulate the flow of foreign skills in a collaborative manner. Stakeholders had provided the DHA with more information regarding the better management of immigration and that information had guided the DHA in the issuance of critical skills visas. This was not how it had been in the past. What became apparent to the DHA was that there had previously been a lot of fraud in applications for critical skills visas.

 

Mr Phindiwe Mbhele, Director: Immigration, DHA, briefed the Committee on the relationship between the DHA and ECSA. Numerous engagements had been held in order to provide advocacy and awareness on the new immigration regulations, for clarification on the engineering qualifications available, and to establish a long-term relationship that would enable smooth facilitation of the issuance of critical skills work visas.

The critical skills work visa had come into effect with the new Act and the new immigration policy that had been implemented on 26 May 2014. As a result of the changes, there had been a need for the development of the critical skills list that would support and enable the implementation of the new critical skills work visa. The list had been developed, to address the skills needed for the objectives of the NDP and generally the national key projects, such as Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs).

The DHA had decided to differentiate between the scarce and critical skills and had chosen the latter for the purpose of the visa issuance. The DHA had defined the term critical skills as “those skills critical to the improvement of the economic development and growth, without which strategic projects and work could not be undertaken; or high level skills that will enhance the skills pool in the economy which in turn will encourage and potentially accelerate growth in the economy.”

 

Mr Mbhele said the DHA had encountered the following challenges since the introduction of the skills work visa:

  • Occupations such as Maths and Science educators were excluded from the new list even though they were there in the Quota List and the draft scarce skills list.
  • There had been demands from economic sectors and individual corporations such as jewellery, basic education, ocularistry, etc. to be included in the list.
  • There had been attempts by applicants to submit fraudulent documents such as South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) evaluation certificates, professional confirmation letters and membership certificates, hence the need for online verification.

Holders of critical skills visas were entitled to apply for a permanent residence permit (PRP). A critical skills visa was issued for five years if a contract was concluded. For those who had not secured employment or a contract, they were issued with a visa for 12 months. Post-doctoral fellows and students could apply for critical skills work visas without leaving the Republic, provided that they did not have obligations from their countries of origin. Dependants of the applicants were also issued with relevant visas in order to accompany the main applicant’s visa. In most of cases, the spouses of the main applicant had critical skills.

Mr Mbhele pointed out that there was competition among countries in attracting and retaining critical skills. In Australia, direct permanent residence permits were issued to individuals with critical skills.

For the way forward, the list of critical skills would be reviewed and refined from time to time. There would be more engagements with Government departments, economic sectors, higher learning institutions, labour organisations and the public at large for further inputs and to achieve relevance. Skills transfer mechanisms would be developed.

Mr McKay noted that there was a challenge in issuing critical skills work visas for individuals with critical skills but who had been offered other managerial positions which did not appear on the critical skills list.

Discussion

The Chairperson remarked that it was problematic to issue the 12-month critical skills work visa. Why should it be issued without a guarantee that the applicant would be employed? How would the applicant survive for the period of 12 months without employment? The stance over issuing the 12-month critical skills work visa was in conflict with the rule that required employers to advertise a particular position first, and if no local citizen was available to fill the post, then a foreign national could be employed. The 12-month critical skills visa had the potential for aggravating the unemployment problem and other social problems. Finally, he sought clarity on who dealt with the question of the transfer of skills in the country.

Ms Kenye sought clarity on how issues of fraud were dealt with, and on the methodology that had been used in order to develop the critical skills list. How had the list been compiled? Had the public been consulted? What were reasons for excluding the occupations of maths and science educators?

 

Ms Raphuti asked why it was more difficult for South Africa to get the best people with critical skills than European countries. Why was South Africa getting bogus engineering practitioners?

Mr Gumede commented that there was a need to distinguish between critical skills and scarce skills, and they should not be used interchangeably. These two terms should be used clearly in communications. The DHA, in its presentation, had not defined what the scarce skills could imply.

The Chairperson noted Mr Gumede’s inputs.

Mr Mackay responded that the critical skills list would be revisited and revised. It had to be reviewed every 24 months. The existing list had been adopted after taking into consideration public comments which had been requested via the Government Gazette.

The term “scarce skills” meant that there were certain occupations which might not require high level or critical skills, but there were no enough people to fill these posts.

The critical skills list had been developed after two consultative workshops that had been conducted in December 2013 and March 2014. The relevant stakeholders and public had been consulted.

The 12-months critical skills work visa was issued after obtaining a financial guarantee that an applicant could support him/herself. Financial considerations were given serious attention.

The skills transfer was the responsibility of the Department of Labour. It included monitoring the employment of foreign nationals.

The Chairperson was not happy with Mr Mackay’s response. He commented that there was a need to protect citizens’ safety and interests. The 12-month critical skills work visa could be used to gain access to South Africa and in any event, an applicant who could not find a job could resort to illegal activities or find other activities that would enable him or her to remain in the Republic. Was there any mechanism to monitor these individuals? Could the DHA assure the Committee that these individuals would leave the Republic, should the 12-month period elapse without them being employed? A more stringent approach was required to deal with the applicants for this visa. Why should a person apply for a critical skills work visa if such person could be employed as a financial manager? He asked the DHA to provide a report indicating how many individuals had applied for a 12-month critical skills work visa, whether they were employed or not, and their whereabouts.

The meeting was adjourned.

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