FOREIGN migrants in South Africa have a greater chance of employment than locals, although they work mainly in low-paid, informal jobs.

A new study by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University is one of only a few pieces of evidence-based research produced that examines the relative position of foreigners and locals in the labour market in South Africa.

The key finding bears out anecdotal assumptions that foreigners are able to work in South Africa with relative ease, particularly in poor-quality or informal jobs.

Author of the paper Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, an economics professor at the Université de Tours, France, said that this was a very surprising result. In most other countries rates of employment are higher among locals than among foreign migrants, and migrants find it harder than locals to get work.

But in South Africa, foreign migrants have an 81% rate of employment, compared to South African nonmigrants, whose rate of employment is 65%.

This is according to the broad measure of employment in which discouraged work-seekers are counted among the unemployed.

The figures are derived from an econometric analysis of the quarterly labour force survey by Statistics South Africa and compares the relative ease with which people join the labour market in terms of age, gender, education, population group, location and migration status.

Migration status is divided into three categories: international migrants; domestic migrants, who are people who have moved their home residence from one part of the country to another in the past five years; and domestic nonmigrants.

Domestic migrants do not include "circular migrants" such as mine workers who return to their home base regularly.

The first key finding, said Prof Fauvelle-Aymar, was that the probability of employment was higher for international migrants than for the other two categories, even when all variables were taken into account.

"In other words, an international migrant with the same age, gender, and level of education, belonging to the same population group and residing in the same place as a native, has a higher probability of being employed than the latter."

The study also finds that international migrants are generally better educated than are local "nonmigrants".

However, their higher propensity to find work is better explained by the type of work they do rather than superior education. International migrant communities often have more years of education than both their home community and the native population in which they settle. A further explanation is that international migrants "have a higher probability of being employed in informal and precarious activities".

While South Africa has a relatively low level of informal activities, particularly compared to other Sub-Saharan African countries, foreigners mostly come from countries where the informal sector is much larger. This, in addition to the fact that informal activities are often the lowest entry cost into the labour market, may explain foreigners’ overrepresentation in the informal sector.

Almost one-third of international migrants are employed in the informal sector, whereas only 17% of local "nonmigrants" make informal livelihoods.

International migrants are also far more likely to be involved in "precarious employment" — in part-time, insecure jobs — than locals. According to the study more than 50% of international migrants have precarious jobs, compared to 30% of nonmigrants.

As Statistics South Africa’s quarterly survey does not look at income concurrently with the country of origin, the study leaves open the question whether foreigners are worse off than locals. However, informal and precarious employment are characterised by lower levels of earnings.