Unions to investigate alleged South African racket

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Monday 11 November 2002 12:15

ELEANOR HALL: Now to the fate of the man that South African diplomats alleged on this programme last month was part of a slave labour racket. While the Australian Government has refused to investigate the allegations, saying the Embassy did not back up its claims that Australian immigration officials were a weak link in the alleged operation, Australian unions are investigating.

The man at the centre of the claims, South African Stephen Malothane, came to the attention of his country's diplomats when he was injured in a building accident in central New South Wales. He told authorities that he was hired by a South African businessman who was killed in the same accident, and that despite working for almost three months had been paid just one hundred dollars. Now a lawyer representing the Construction, Forestry, Mining ad Energy Union, has travelled to South Africa to meet Mr Malothane.

Africa Correspondent, Sally Sara went along as well.

SALLY SARA: It's a journey to Australia that Stephen Malothane would rather forget. His three months work almost cost him his life. Mr Malothane was severely injured during a construction accident at Lake Cargelligo in rural NSW. He received deep cuts to his leg and back.

The man who brought him to Australia from South Africa was killed in the incident. Stephen Malothane says he still hasn't been paid for his work, and is now unable to seek another job until his wounds heal. Mr Malothane says he wants the matter settled.

He says he's angry and regrets the day he went to Australia.

The 42 year-old is now recovering at home in the small town of Umranstad [phonetic], south-west of Johannesburg.

His wife, Sophie, says when she'd heard he'd been an accident, she thought he was dead. The family of the man who brought Mr Malothane to Australia, Anton Batel [phonetic], say his wages of $8,000 will be paid into a trust fund.

Mr Batel's widow declined the invitation to take part in an interview, but provided a written statement. She says her husband and Mr Malothane had a long-standing business relationship.

Union officials in South Africa and Australia are now involved in the case.

A legal representative from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has met with Stephen Malothane. The lawyer, Lachlan Riches, says there must be an investigation to determine whether there's any evidence of widespread exploitative business practices.

LACHLAN RICHES: We think it's very important, Sally, because we think that all workers who come to Australia are entitled to be treated and paid in exactly the same way as other Australian workers, not exploited, not made to be slave labour.

SALLY SARA: But the Federal Government says there's no evidence of widespread exploitation. Paula Kansky, regional director for Africa with the Department of Immigration, says initial investigations have failed to find any syndicates bringing workers illegally from South Africa.

PAULA KANSKY: From the evidence we've been able to gather so far, there does not appear to be wide scale abuse, or at least an organised racket, but we are continuing with our investigations in Australia, and we'll have to wait on the outcome of that.

SALLY SARA: But the CFMEU and South Africa's National Union of Mine Workers are pursuing the matter. NUM spokesman, Moferefere Lekorotsoana, says the unemployed and impoverished workers could be easy targets for unscrupulous employers.

MOFEREFERE LEKOROTSOANA: That type of movement is very easy because the person is poor, he doesn't have work, and any promise of anything, and people have this sense of this hope of striking it rich or wahtever, precisely because they are poor. So, any person would be more vulnerable if they are promised such things.

SALLY SARA: South African and Australian union officials will work togeher to investigate allegations of exploitation. This is Sally Sara in Johannesburg for The World Today.