The Labour Policy Change in South Sudan: Celebrated at Home but Decried across the Borders

By Jok Ayuen Mabior

September 19, 2014 (SSNA) — The recent circular from South Sudan’s Ministry of Labour, Public Service and Human Resource that outlined the labour policy has raised eyebrows, even garnered fury with some people.  Indeed, it prompted what used to be a refutable news outlet, the NTV Kenya, to brand South Sudanese as “Thankless kids”.  And another Kenyan journalist exaggeratedly likened the policy to that of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians and Indians from Uganda in 1972.

Why the new policy has engendered such feelings from our neighbours? The policy (or lack of it) that favoured foreign nationals has existed for a long time. In addition, the breadth of the coverage of the new policy would make one understand why there have been such angry reactions in Kenya and Uganda.

Indeed, the government should not have expected that it would be all smiles with this policy change. If you have been offering food to someone for a long time, he or she will think something is wrong with you when you abruptly cease to do that. Therefore, government should have explained more the justification for the policy change, even when it is too obvious.

However, one would strain his or her nerves very hard to understand why Kenyans and Ugandans always react the way they do to events pertaining the interest of their fellow citizens in South Sudan. Their first favourite reaction is always a comical name calling that South Sudanese are blacker than they are. Although, it is literally a case of a kettle calling a pot black, it is a very unfortunate way of resolving disagreements.

Their other reaction is an emotional call for retaliatory measures. Indeed, the fact that there are thousands of South Sudanese residing and studying in Kenya and Uganda is always pointed out. However, one thing suffices to be said about this. Those South Sudanese who are residing or studying in Kenya and Uganda are spending their own money in Kenya—paying for rents, food, and education.

That South Sudanese are living in those countries is another life tube for the economies of Kenya and Uganda. So, expelling South Sudan’s citizens would not hurt South Sudanese the way it would to these countries (i.e., if established that residing and studying of South Sudanese in these countries was a quid pro quo for their citizens’ working in their South Sudan).

Further, the fact that South Sudan had received help from these neighbouring countries in the past has entered into the psyches of some citizens of these countries. They fail to find any rational argument whenever they feel aggrieved by actions of South Sudanese authorities. These people juvenilely argue that South Sudan must always respect and protect their interests at the expense of its own, simply because their countries had hosted (continue to do so) South Sudanese during their struggles. As for Kenyans in particular, the fact that Kenya midwifed peace agreement that led to South Sudan’s independence is taken a source of entitlement. A credit to be paid perpetually.

To be fair, South Sudan’s neighbours had helped her in one way or the other. Some had hosted our refugees and while others offered us political and military assistance. In fact, South Sudan as a country will always be grateful for that. However, the citizens of these countries, especially Kenyans, must be reminded that it was not every South Sudan who had been a refugee there had a pleasant experience.

The fourth reaction is around the fact that South Sudan is aspiring to join the East African Community (the EAC) shown by its application to join the bloc. This is taken to mean that South Sudan should have by now begun to treat any citizen from the EAC counties like its citizens. That is why those who are dissatisfied with the new policy argue that there should not be any restrictions on the employment of their fellow citizens.

However, they need to be reminded of these facts. First, the EAC has a long way to go as political integration is concerned. Equal treatment of member states’ citizens has to wait for that development. Indeed, the existing countries of the EAC do not have the open door labour policy. In this regard, South Sudan is not alone in preferring the interests of its citizens. Second, equal treatment of the Citizens of the EAC this is not requirement for joining the EAC. Thirdly, if joining the EAC have to be at the expense of South Sudanese, it would be easy for South Sudanese to say “to hell with EAC”.

Back to the complaint. Does South Sudan have to permanently subordinate its interests and obligations to its citizens to show gratefulness? The simple answer is no.

The long explanation of that answer is this. Every community, society or nation-state has a right to maximise the interests of its citizens. South Sudan, like any other country, has a primary obligation towards its citizens. This is the very reason for the existence of the state of South Sudan—protecting the best interests of its general populace. Its government has a mandate and a responsibility to make policy choices and regulations that best serve interests of the citizens. This includes allowing foreign nationals to work in South Sudan in areas where local expertise is lacking, and preferring the employment of locals where it is expedient to do so. 

However, South Sudan government has been a “no-show” in this endeavour since 2005, understandably so. There were few confident South Sudanese to fill in those positions back then. But that is different now.

Sadly, this open door policy has been abused. The NGOs and big business corporations have used this as unquestioned right to import workers outside the countries, and in most cases employing up to 100% foreigners as their staffers. Indeed, the flawed argument is that there are still no qualified South Sudanese for such positions. However, the only way to find out whether there are no educated locals is by opening those jobs to them. If no one applies for such jobs, then the NGO’s and business companies will be justified to hire outside the country.

Their other justification is that South Sudanese are lazy. Uncritical and insulting as it seems, it is a deliberate ploy to keep South Sudanese away from those lucrative jobs. However, it is a non-starter. It is the same South Sudanese so described who want those jobs! Why complain?

Overall, our neighbours need to know that South Sudanese are generous people. And they do not hate others. What is happening is that South Sudan is struggling with high unemployment. What can the government do?

Our neighbours need to enter inside South Sudan’s skin to understand the necessity of this policy. Ordinary citizens have been crying out for the change. However, the status quo was maintained due to inactiveness of the policymakers.

Two factors necessitate the revision of the labour policy in South Sudan. Let’s start from the obvious one. First, South Sudan economy that depends on oil has been badly affected by the ongoing senseless violence in the country. This has accentuated the unemployment situation in the country—awakening the government from its slumber-like complacency.

The second factor, and which depends on the first, is the level of youth unemployment in the country. There has been a steady increase in unemployment rate in the country. This coincides with the returns of educated South Sudanese from regional universities in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. They have no places in these countries since the governments there are also struggling with high unemployment rates among their youthful populations. Indeed, all these years, South Sudan has been the one assisting these neighbouring countries with keeping down of their unemployment rates while its own skyrocketed.

Logically, South Sudanese had to return home in droves, but only to find no jobs awaiting them at home. The private sector and NGO’s jobs are the preserves the foreigners. At the same time, the public sector, which has overwhelmingly been the employer, had reached a saturation point long time ago. Still, this has been aggravated by the fact that its sole source of revenue in the oil sectors is now operating below its expected capacity.

Should the government have turned a blind eye to this as it have been doing in the past? No! A prudent government must look for ways and means of alleviating this acute problem. In fact, the function of the labour ministry is to minimise the impact of high influxes of foreign workers in its labour market. Therefore, a current shift in the labour policy is a good decision in a right direction. It might have come too late in the day, but better late than never.

However, some caveats have to be made about the circular. First, the language of the circular is an alarmist. It is tantamount to an ultimatum. Its language portrays it as a knee-jerk policy from someone who has been sleeping on the problem and has unjust woke up to the sound of alarm bell tied to his or her door post.

A policy of this nature should have been carefully formulated and communicated in a manner that would minimise misunderstanding that might ensue from it. The introduction of the policy should have a gradual process that would culminate in having certain percentages of NGO’s and corporations workers given to South Sudanese.

Secondly, the policy would have benefit from consultation. The NGO’s and business are equal stakeholders with the government in serving the people of South Sudan. The government needed to have consulted with these stakeholders. However, the nature of the circular—its language and presentation—suggests that little has been done by way of consultation with these stakeholders. It is a flaw that is noticeable.

Thirdly, the new policy affects real people with real financial fears. As such, a person responsible for this policy needed to have realised that those positions they demanded to be given to South Sudan are being filled by people with families to feed— even when they are foreign nationals. Thus, it was irresponsible to put out a circular that demanded termination of these jobs overnight.

Having mentioned those caveats, should our neighbours feel aggrieved?  Of course, they should. There is nothing wrong with their sense of entitlement, even though many South Sudanese may take exception to that.  But, of course, that sense of entitlement has to be regulated by the host government. Therefore pairing it with Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda is a sensationist and over exaggerated characterisation of that policy. 

Therefore, the reactions from the neighbours are unwarranted. There is nothing xenophobic about the policy. Nobody is being expelled from South Sudan as some journalists in Kenya and Uganda are irresponsibly portraying in their slants.

This policy change will bring South Sudan labour policy in line with the practices in countries where employers have to seek work permits and to “show cause” why there is a need to hire staff outside the country. The existing practice in which South Sudanese are simply overlooked is not sustainable, given the circumstances the country is in. Maintaining the status quo is not only in ignorant of the change in South Sudan’s labour market, it also amounts to an insult to the citizens of South Sudan. Furthermore, preferring foreign workers to local people where there is no proper justification, as it is currently the case, is a gross injustice. A caring government (or even an opportunistic one) would see a reason for a policy change in these circumstances.

A policy change is warranted. The proposed policy will serve the interests of both foreign nationals as well as South Sudanese—making them both happy.

The author could be reached at [email protected]

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