Thursday, October 12, 2017

THINKING ALOUD: Work permit refusal doesn’t make Tanzanians xenophobic

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

By Prof Zulfiqarali Premji,

The Immigration Department has lately become more stringent in issuing work permits and I totally support this. I never thought that I would ever write on this topic because I have never observed xenophobic tendencies in Tanzanian.

It never crossed my mind that we were xenophobic. But what is xenophobia? It is an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries and this can become violent as was recently witnessed in South Africa. Xenophobia is not a medical term, but a political one.

There are people who think that different is synonymous with wrong. Diversity should be an inherent aspect of human existence and it is not only senseless and cruel, but also sinful to point a finger at or discriminate against a foreigner.

Recently on an outbound flight from Dar es Salaam, I overheard a conversation between two passengers, who claimed that Tanzanians were becoming xenophobic. Apparently from their discussion I gathered that they had been working in Dar es Salaam for a number of years, but their work permits were either revoked or not renewed and they were thus returning home. This was the gist of their conversation.

It is the right of every country to deny anyone a work permit, and that does not necessarily connote xenophobia. These are totally different issues and the two passengers were either intentionally or, due to ignorance, misconstruing the matter.

The current government is doing the right thing to restrict the dishing out of work permits to all and sundry. Too many work permits were previously issued, mostly to workers who did not qualify or meet the criteria for being an expatriate.

In the early 1970s when I joined Muhimbili National Hospital, which was then known as Muhimbili Medical Centre, there were only a handful of expatriate doctors, but by 1980 all positions had been filled by Tanzanians. This should be the spirit and policy.

Wherever possible, Tanzanians should be given preference and if it is not possible to get the right candidates, the jobs should go the highest qualified foreigners, but there should be a time limit to ensure succession planning. In reality, what was happening was very different and detrimental to this nation. Corrupt immigration officers were part of this game.

There are private institutions that were established more than 50 years ago but which until now recruit between 30 and 40 per cent of their staff from outside the country. The top position of CEO is invariably held by a foreigner and so is the sensitive position of chief financial officer (CFO) even though there are plenty of qualified Tanzanians for these posts. One may ask why this was the case. The answer is simple. Tidy sums of money were changing hands.

I remember in the early 1970s when private secondary schools were nationalised all head teacher positions were mandatorily given to Tanzanians, but in recent times, with the mushrooming of private schools, I see head teachers from outside the country.

Many expatriates were given positions they were not qualified for. This is a serious issue and such practices should be immediately stopped. There were also many tricks being used to circumvent the work permit approval process. These include creating positions that previously did not exist, such as “development manager”, and the listing of misleading job descriptions.

Another flimsy but widely cited excuse for hiring foreigners is that although there are qualified Tanzanians, they are not competent, honest or committed. I have always, for example, wondered why almost all attendants manning duty free shops at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam are foreigners. Can’t Tanzanians do this job?

It is an open secret that some private schools, hospitals, hotels, small and large industries, including agriculture, construction and even retail businesses bribed corrupt immigration officers for their undeserving foreign employees to be issued with work permits. That was the pre-2015 Tanzania. It must be said that the Immigration Department is now doing a commendable job and deserves the praise, but there are still many foreigners who should not be here.

Another area that needs closer attention is the involvement of foreigners in retail business, especially in Kariakoo, Dar es Salaam. I don’t see any logic in this and perhaps the Immigration Department can shed some light.

I agree that the available local human resource is not adequate to meet the requirements of industrial-based development. This is a fact and hence the need for specialised expertise will remain and we need expatriates for such positions.

The issue is not about the skills that locals possess, but rather the skills that they do not possess. People should stop confusing xenophobia with patriotism.