“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.