The South Sudanese government’s threat to expel all foreign workers on 16 September is indicative of the high risk to international operators inside the country. The disjointed manner of the announcement and the decision to significantly water down the threat the following day highlights the poor coordination within the government and high levels of political volatility in South Sudan. Amid public anger over foreign employment regulations, businesses and NGOs operating in South Sudan should anticipate repeat belligerent threats of expulsion in the coming months.
The initial announcement threatened to ban foreign workers in all NGOs, banks, insurance companies, petroleum companies, hotels and lodges, and was scheduled to take effect one month after the announcement, on 15 October. The order was watered down significantly following a mass international outcry, as foreign businesses and NGOs complained that with less than 30 percent of South Sudanese nationals literate, it would be impossible to fill management positions. In a statement clarifying the decree, South Sudan said the initial statement had been released prematurely and it was still in the process of defining labour laws.
The attempts to restrict foreign workers came in response to widespread anger among the South Sudanese population over unemployment and the prominence of foreign workers in the labour force. Outcry over the lack of employment opportunities for local people have repeatedly resulted in physical attacks on foreign businesses and in 2012 Ugandan workers in Juba reported a string of xenophobic assaults on their businesses and personnel. Juba said the retracted measure was part of an effort to quell this discontent and the move represented the third time since 2011 that the government had attempted to introduce tighter local content laws.
The politicised and unpredictable business environment is exacerbated by a system of unclear and often contradictory messages emerging from the government. The latest effort to introduce local content laws was only released in a general notice to the public in local media on 16 September, without any direct notice to employers. The move mirrored an earlier decision in July to ban all foreign taxis from operating in the country, without any prior warning or grace period.
Combined with unprofessional communication channels, the ambiguous nature of policy announcements worsens uncertainty for operators in the country. For example, the published version of the September statement stipulated that only South Sudanese workers could be employed without exceptions, while the foreign minister declared that the law only applied to sectors where there was South Sudanese capacity to fill vacancies. Contradictory messages have also emerged over the effect of the decree on senior management. The labour minister announced on 17 September that the directive would only target low-level positions, despite the initial order referring to executive director and management positions.
The incoherence of government announcements and ongoing policy ambiguities leave foreign operators vulnerable to unexpected changes in legislation and labour reforms in the coming months. In particular this is likely to impact on the acquisition of work permits for foreign employees, which already face extensive delays and frequent, arbitrary rejections. Faced by a lack of skills in the country and significant dependency on foreign labour for both economic and humanitarian needs, any far reaching restrictions of foreign workers in the short-term will be practically difficult to implement. However, the recent announcement and forecast continuation of government efforts to placate public anxiety over the high proportion of foreign workers in South Sudan ensure that risks to foreign operators persist.
The depth of domestic support for wider local content laws suggest that Juba is likely to continue efforts to introduce labour requirements and will continue to make inflammatory statements that will alarm operators in-country. In accordance with risk management protocols made necessary by the poor security situation in the country, operators should factor in short-notice evacuation and business continuity plans in the event of a sudden introduction of foreign labour bans. Preparedness to face local hostility and attacks by disgruntled South Sudanese is also an important consideration, especially as the issue continues to gain public attention.