Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Recognition of foreign qualifications: the case of Cuban engineers


Recognition of foreign qualifications: the case of Cuban engineers

JB Cronjé, tralac Researcher, discusses some of the practical challenges involved in the facilitation of movement of business persons across borders

The South African Minister of Water and Sanitation recently announced the arrival of 34 Cuban water experts in the country. These professionals have been appointed by the government in terms of a bilateral agreement between South Africa and Cuba on cooperation in the fields of water resource management and water supply. They have been contracted to work for the Department of Water and Sanitation for a period of two years with the possibility of extending their stay for another year. According to the Minister’s statement “the specialists will be deployed at the department’s head office in Pretoria as well as in rural parts of South Africa where there is a shortage of skill”.

Cooperation between the two states goes back a long way. For example, due to the shortage of medical doctors in South Africa, hundreds of medical students receive medical training in Cuba. Although the training programme is far from ideal for a number of reasons, medical schools in South Africa and within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) simply do not have the capacity to train enough doctors to meet the country’s needs. This case seems to be different to that of the group of Cuban water specialists including civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, hydraulic engineers, and irrigation and drainage specialists. Their arrival has received criticism from the local engineering profession. The Chief Executive Officer of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering reported said “Our engineers need to get first choice. We have excellent, experienced engineers both locally, as well as those who are currently working outside of South Africa.  Government needs to make strides to attract South African engineers back to South Africa and back into our government sector where they are most needed. If there is a shortage thereafter, then the whole world can join us”. The President of Consulting Engineers South Africa seemingly refuted any claims of local skills shortages and said “Our member firms are currently only being 60% utilised and have 40% spare capacity while they are waiting for the Government to bring projects on stream”. A civil rights organisation, Afriforum, even went as far as submitting the Curriculum Vitaes of 54 South African water engineers and specialists to the Minister a few days after her announcement. This could be a case of political considerations trumping pragmatic solutions or of incumbents protecting their own turf. It could also point to poor consultation between government and the engineering profession and lack of cooperation and coordination between relevant government departments such as the Department of Higher Education and Training that is responsible for compiling a “critical skills list” from which the Department of Home Affairs can develop its own list of skills and occupations deemed critical for the country in relation to applications for critical skills visas or permanent residence permits. Both departments have identified engineering occupations as critically needed in the country.

South Africa made commitments in engineering and integrated engineering services under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) allowing foreign firms to establish and use the services of such professionals provided they possess the necessary academic and professional qualifications, which have been recognised by the relevant professional association in South Africa. This requirement highlights an important distinction between offering access to foreign professionals into the local labour market and allowing them to practice their profession. It also underscores the important interaction between commitments made under international law and their implementation in terms of domestic law. In order to give effect to this commitment, the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 provides that an application for a critical skills visa or intra-corporate transferee visa must be accompanied by proof that the applicant falls within a critical skills category in the form of:

  • Confirmation from the approved professional body, in this case the Engineering Council of South Africa or any relevant government department, presumably Department of Water and Sanitation, confirming the skills and qualifications of the applicants;
  • Proof of application for a certificate of registration with the professional body recognised by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA); and
  • Proof of evaluation of the foreign qualification by SAQA.

The Engineering Profession Act 46 of 2000 establishes a statutory body, the Engineering Council of South Africa, which is responsible for the registration of professionals, candidates and specific categories in the engineering profession and is recognised by SAQA. The Cuban professionals would have had to comply with all these legal requirements, despite claims made in the media that “Cuban engineering skills were not recognised by the Engineering Council of SA, because Cuba was not a party to the Washington Accord, which governs international engineering qualifications”.

The recognition of foreign academic and professional qualifications is a major challenge and creates in some cases a barrier to labour mobility. In order for foreign professionals to get their qualifications recognised in another country, accreditation authorities must be satisfied that the local and foreign qualifications are comparable either because they are harmonised or viewed as equivalent  or that they satisfy external criteria such as an international standard. This requires confidence in the quality of another country’s education system and professional standards. The Engineering Council of South Africa, like any other professional body, has an obligation to consider all foreign applications for registration. However, the assessment process for a foreign application is expedited and the prospect of successful registration is increased if the foreign qualification is obtained in a country covered by an international agreement governing mutual recognition of engineering qualifications and professional competence. The Engineering Council of South Africa is a party to all three agreements, namely the Washington, Sydney and Dublin Accords that recognises the equivalence of tertiary qualifications of engineers. Three other agreements, namely the APEC Engineer Agreement, International Professional Engineers Agreement and International Engineering Technologist Agreement, recognise equivalence at the professional level. The Engineering Council of South Africa belongs to the International Professional Engineers Agreement that facilitates international mobility by establishing and maintaining an international register of professional engineers. The starting-point for all these agreements is that a registered person in one country must be considered as having the agreed international standard of competence and should only be minimally assessed (primarily for local knowledge) prior to registration in another country that is party to the agreement.

This case illustrates some of the practical challenges involved in the facilitation of movement of persons across borders to where their skills are needed. South Africa and its regional economic partners are at various stages of negotiating or implementing agreements that are supposed to facilitate the movement of professionals across borders. Agreeing in principle to the adoption of agreed international standards for the mutual recognition of foreign qualifications, especially in those professions with a high degree of generic skills content, should be considered when negotiating these agreements.



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