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Working Your Way Through

by Ed Underwood, President
Central American Consulting Services, Inc.

If this is paradise, why work? For one thing, not working, even in paradise, gets old after a while--most of us need something constructive to do to occupy our time. Work is also useful in helping one eat, a habit many of us have held onto since childhood. Even in paradise, one must eat!

According to Licenciada Teresita Alfaro Molina, head of the Work Permit Section in the Labor Ministry, if you come to Costa Rica as a tourist, you'd better stick to being a tourist--it's against the law to change your status from tourist to worker without some pretty convincing convincing! And, it's against the law (both the law governing immigration and foreigners, and the labor code) for a tourist to work for pay in Costa Rica.

Miss Alfaro is exceptionally knowledgeable in the area of foreigners working in Costa Rica. Before assuming her current post, she worked for 12 years with the Immigration Department's Labor section, approving applications from non-residents for work permits. She indicated that it is common for non-residents to spend a few weeks vacationing here, fall in love with the country and then wish to stay and work.

Current unemployment figures for Costa Rica hover around 4.5%, one of the lowest in Latin America. Even during times of slow economic growth, Costa Ricans work, and they work hard for relatively low wages. Neither the government nor local business want foreigners coming to this beautiful country taking jobs away from its motivated, well-trained residents.

Certain non-residents can receive work permits fairly easily, but only a select few. These include:

All work permits are issued for six months, but can be extended for up to two years.

Another group of foreigners permitted to work in Costa Rica are the owners and stockholders in registered Costa Rican companies. If you own stock in any corporate business in the country, you may work in any capacity in that enterprise. Iíll have more about this in my upcoming article on getting your residency in Costa Rica.

There is a clause in the law which gives the Director of Immigration the right to grant exceptions. This seems to happen on a regular basis, especially for doctors and nurses who come to Costa Rica for humanitarian service. Also, exceptions are granted to some bilingual professors, and specialists in a variety of areas where no such specialist is available here. These exceptions, when granted, are time or task limited and non-renewable.

In the case of employees of trans-national corporations, many are granted temporary residency (giving them working privileges), rather than work permits, for a period of two years. In a limited number of cases, if a business (either Costa Rican or trans-national) is interested in hiring a non-resident, application can be made to the Immigration Office. According to Licenciada Alfaro, this is very unusual and almost always rejected.

Businesses in Costa Rica, whether national or trans-national, can, by law, have no more than ten percent of their payroll non-residents. However, for the agro-industrial sector, this ten percent does not include immigrant or refugee labor.

Refugees, you ask? Yes, refugees.

Central American refugees, specifically, have a special status in Costa Rica. Because of the political and military problems of many of our Central American neighbors, Costa Rica has created a refugee status for those fleeing their own country. This is neither a residential nor non-residential status so typical work permit issues do not pertain. After three years in Costa Rica, a refugee may apply for a work permit. When granted, this permit is for an unlimited time or until the refugee is able to return to his or her own country.

As a humanitarian gesture, Costa Rica has made allowances for the Nicaraguan worker. Nicaragua's current unemployment level is around 60%. With so little work to be found in that country, many "Nicas" cross the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border looking for something they can do to earn a living. Nicaraguans are allowed to work in Costa Rica under a special program which gives them a six-month permit to work during specified fruit and vegetable harvests.

Miss Alfaro also pointed out that, with the exception of refugees and the numerous Nicaraguans, all people wishing to work in Costa Rica under the existing laws should apply for their permits, or work visas, before entering the country.

So, if you are coming to Costa Rica as a tourist, enjoy yourself. This really is a wonderful and full- of-wonder country. If you decide you want to work here, do it right and abide by the laws. It will make your stay in Paradise even more enjoyable.

Other related articles on Cocori:
"Living Legally in Costa Rica" and
"On the Road to Retirement in Costa Rica"

Copyright © 1996 by Ed Underwood. All rights reserved.

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Updated on June 15, 1996 by M.L. Smith