COVID-19: the ICJ publishes a briefing paper on promoting non-citizens’ right to work in South Africa

The briefing paper is published today in the context of significant uncertainty and distress experienced by migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people and other non-citizens in South Africa as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that the authorities have taken with the stated aim of responding to it.

“All people residing in South Africa have the right to work and in earn a living in the country under international human rights law. The Government of South Africa should guard against laws, policies and public statements that discriminate against non-citizens especially during the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. Lockdown regulations and directions must be conceived and implemented in a way that fully enables all migrant workers performing essential services, including informal traders, waste reclaimers and shop owners to operate on an equal basis with South African citizens,” said Arnold Tsunga, the ICJ’s Africa Director.

The ICJ has previously condemned discriminatory statements made about non-citizen owners of “spaza shops” made by Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni in the context of COVID-19, and called on President Ramaphosa to publically repudiate these statements.

The briefing paper, which was produced in consultation with domestic, South African human rights organizations: the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and Lawyers for Human Rights, sets out the following clear principles of international human rights law regarding non-citizens’ right to work in South Africa:

  • Everyone, regardless of citizenship status, has the right to work in South Africa under, among others, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights;
  • This right to work, which is binding on South Africa, adds to the government’s constitutional obligations in terms of rights at work or the “right to fair labour practices”;
  • The right to work protects both formal and informal workers, including non-citizens, in accordance with ILO Recommendation 204 and the General Comments of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • The right to work applies to non-citizens irrespective of their documentary status in South Africa;
  • No restrictions on the “core” obligations placed on states in terms of the right to work, as set out by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, are permissible;
  • Restrictions or limitations on the right to work are permissible if they are set out in clearly in legislation, in pursuit of a legitimate objective, and are reasonable and proportionate taking into account the need to protect human dignity consistently with international human rights law and the Constitution;
  • Any restrictions on non-citizens’ rights to work should be administrative (such as requiring permits or documentation), rather than substantive or categorical, otherwise they are likely to amount to prohibited forms of discrimination in terms of international and South African law; and
  • Any administrative process designed by the State in this regard must be reasonable and proportionate and geared towards facilitating non-citizens ability to work in SA instead of limiting them.


Tim Fish Hodgson, ICJ Legal Adviser, e: tim.hodgson(a) ; c: +2782871990

Shaazia Ebrahim, ICJ Media Officer, e: shaazia.ebrahim(a) ; c: +27716706719


South Africa-Non Citizens Right to Work-Advocacy-Analysis Brief-2020-ENG (full paper in PDF)

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