Due to travel bans and restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees working on foreign assignments or abroad may not qualify for the foreign remuneration exemption for the 1 March 2020 to 28 February 2021 assessment period, and face paying double tax on the same income – in South Africa and in the foreign country.
In this article, we look at the requirements for qualifying for the foreign remuneration exemption, the latest legislative and circumstantial changes that need to be considered, as well as the steps that employers can take to assist their employees to plan for their foreign remuneration tax liability and to avoid a potentially crippling double tax burden.
“Every advantage has its tax.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The purpose of the foreign remuneration exemption, which was introduced in 2000, is to provide relief from any possible double tax that may arise where both South Africa and the foreign country taxes the same income derived from employment, according to a SAICA article on the topic, written by Piet Nel (Project Director: Tax Professional Development).
Requirements to qualify for the exemption
- The employee must be a resident of South Africa, for tax purposes.
- The employee must have been physically absent from South Africa and worked outside South Africa for a period or periods exceeding 183 full days in aggregate during any period of 12 months.
- The employee must have been physically absent from South Africa and worked outside South Africa for a continuous period exceeding 60 full days during that period of 12 months.
However, due to recent legislative changes and COVID-19 travel restrictions, many employees who work on foreign assignments or abroad may not qualify for the exemption for the 1 March 2020 to 28 February 2021 assessment period, and face paying double tax.
Important changes to the exemption
- A new R1.25 million threshold applies for this 1 March 2020 – 28 February 2021 tax period, where previously, there was a full exemption for qualifying foreign sourced remuneration. The individual will, unless the foreign country doesn’t impose a tax on remuneration, be liable for a double tax to the extent that the remuneration exceeds R1.25 million, explains Nel.
- Furthermore, since March 2020, employers must withhold employees’ tax if the taxpayer is employed by a South African resident employer, registered as such with SARS. If not, the first provisional tax was payable on 31 August 2020 and the second payment is due on 26 February 2021.
- COVID-19 travel restrictions around the world prevented many employees from traveling to work outside South Africa to meet the 183-day requirement, and therefore they cannot qualify for the exemption. Although some international travel became possible after 31 May, many workers remain unable to travel internationally. SARS and National Treasury recently proposed some relief through reducing the required number of days abroad by the 66 days of COVID-19 alert levels 5 and 4 (27 March 2020 – 31 May 2020) in South Africa. This would reduce the required number of days abroad from 183 to 117 in any 12-month period, for years of assessment ending from 29 February 2020 to 28 February 2021. The current requirement of 60 continuous days abroad would remain unchanged.
How companies can assist their employees
Given that the proposed revised rules have been announced so late and that COVID-19 remains a threat to international travel – affecting employees’ ability to accumulate even the proposed reduced number of days working abroad (117) – companies need to assist their employees to plan for their foreign remuneration tax liability.
- Keep updated with ongoing changes
The proposed amendment of the required number of days abroad is only expected to be finalised and approved later this year. In the meantime, South Africa has announced that all international travel can resume subject to stringent health protocols.
While this is great news, it comes at a time when a second wave of COVID-19 has sent much of Europe back into lockdown, and when South Africa is witnessing a resurgence in the number of COVID-19 cases in certain areas, which has prompted government to announce the implementation of a resurgence plan. Widespread concerns remain regarding a future return to a harder lockdown alert level, which may see travel restrictions being implemented again.
- Consider the individual impact
Nel explains that the stipulated period of 12 months is not a year of assessment, but any period of 12 months starting or ending during the year of assessment. It is also not a requirement of the relevant section of the Income Tax Act that the 12-month cycles run consecutively.
As a result, whether an employee qualifies for the exemption will depend on when their specific 12-month cycle starts, as well as how much time was spent outside South Africa before and after the lockdown. There may also be double tax agreements in place with specific countries that could affect an employee’s tax position.
Cross-border employees, unable to work during the lockdown, should prudently consider when their new 12-month cycle should start. Those who continued earning remuneration from foreign employers while working remotely from South Africa will see their full income taxed in South Africa.
It is possible to get credit for foreign tax to provide relief where a double tax arises. The Income Tax Act allows for foreign tax credits to be granted where the same amount was subject to tax, or partially so, in South Africa and in another country, but only on assessment, says Nel.
In some instances, obtaining a tax directive may also be necessary. The law relevant to employees’ tax (PAYE) doesn’t allow for the foreign remuneration exemption to be taken into account by the employer on a monthly basis. SARS indicated that an employer “may at his or her discretion, under paragraph 10 of the Fourth Schedule, apply for a directive from SARS to vary the basis on which employees’ tax is withheld monthly in the Republic” and that the “potential foreign tax credit is taken into account to determine the employees’ tax that has to be withheld for payroll purposes.”
As Nel points out, there are also other practical implications to consider. Some benefits, which may be exempt from tax in the foreign jurisdiction, may not qualify for an exemption in South Africa. Examples of such benefits include free accommodation provided by the employer, security and travel services. It is also not clear how allowances, such as travel allowances, should be treated. Whilst SARS updated its practice generally prevailing in this respect, these issues are not clarified.
- Professional tax assistance
In light of the ongoing changes in legislation and circumstances, and the need to consider each employee individually while taking into account the myriad factors that apply to the foreign earnings exemption, South African employers are well advised to obtain professional assistance in order to prudently assess their – and their employees’ – current tax positions and how the recent changes in respect of the foreign remuneration exemption will affect their tax liability.