The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) says 71 South African nationals who had entered the country on the pretext of being employed at the Polihali construction site Dam were sent back home after it emerged they had entered the country without work permits.
The 71 illegal migrants were deported without being charged for illegal entry into the country following negotiations with relevant authorities.
Home Affairs principal secretary ‘Machabana Letsie says they did not charge the 71 South Africans for illegal entry into Lesotho because they produced proof that they had applied for work permits from as far back as April 2019.
“How do you charge someone with illegal entry into your country if they have applied for work permits a year ago? The country is the one that failed them for not processing their work permits timely.
“Without a work permit they cannot open bank accounts in the country and their salaries have been paid into SA banks. That means we have not been able to tax their salaries even though they work in our country,” Letsie indicated.
Meanwhile, Lesotho Highlands Development Authority’s public relations manager Masilo Phakoe confirmed that the 71 have indeed been working in the country for over a year without work permits.
“The LHDA has learned that about 83 South African residents working for one of the Phase II construction contractors, Rumdel Construction (Cape) Pty Ltd, crossed the border into Lesotho and proceeded to the construction site in Polihali, Mokhotlong district. Rumdel submitted its risk mitigation plan on May 1 2020,” Phakoe said.
However, Phakoe indicated that as per Lesotho’s labour regulations require all foreign workers employed in Lesotho to be issued with work permits by the department of labour and employment.
Work permit applications are submitted by the employers (specific consultants and contractors) and the LHDA issues a letter of support, after having satisfied itself that the list of suggested personnel is in line with the agreed recruitment principles and sharing of opportunities underpinning the LHWP and that all required information has been provided.
“Given that the work permits approval process can take time, it may be possible that some workers whose applications had not yet been approved by the department, may have been working before the permits had been issued before the lockdown. However, this can only be verified once LHDA has received the names and identification details of the people concerned,” Phakoe said.
He added that; “All contractors and consultants are contractually bound to comply with the laws of Lesotho. Breaches of the law are dealt with by government agencies/departments concerned. The LHDA respects the laws of the country and supports the government of Lesotho in its enforcement thereof. Any transgression is addressed in accordance with the provisions of the contract and/or applicable law.
Phakoe further indicated that following the relaxation of the lockdown regulations it is expected that project activities will resume and these include the Phase II construction teams going back to site.
However, the repatriation of these workers may mean that activities will remain suspended as the LHDA and all role players work together to put the necessary safety measures in place as directed by the Lesotho Public Health Covid-19 Regulations. These include protocols on site access control for those returning back to site, Covid-19 response training for personnel, review of shift work strategies, accommodation and shared facilities to enable social distancing and all measures that need to be taken into consideration to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection at the construction site
Also, he said, LHDA is engaging with the two governments, through the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission, regarding acceptable measures that could be implemented to ensure safe re-entry of LHWP workers into the country and further quarantine requirements in collaboration with the ministry of health.
On what the LHDA is doing to prepare for those workers after recalling them to their work station Phakoe, indicated that LHDA also requested all the South African based consultants and contractors working on Phase II of the project to submit a list of their workers who need to re-enter Lesotho.
“Part of the information that the LHDA has requested includes the passport number, the work permit number and resident number for each worker. This information is still coming in,” he said.
Mokhotlong District Administrator Serame Linake says he was alerted by some of the people working at the site that there were South Africans who had entered the premises. He said he then alerted the relevant authorities which took over the matter.
Meanwhile, the 12 South African workers in possession of valid work permits were given the option of returning to the management camp in Polihali and to self-quarantine. However, the contractor concluded that it would be impractical to resume work with such a small number.
In another development, labour commissioner ‘Mamohale Matsoso says even though it is taking too long to process the work permit applications of the Rumdel employees, that does not justify them entering and working in Lesotho without proper documentation.
“When the lockdown started, we were waiting for a letter of approval from LHDA; we were still working on the permits.
“If those workers or the company felt the permits were taking too long to process, this project is a bilateral agreement between the two countries and they could have approached the principals of both countries to help them speed up the process,” Matsoso said.