Johannesburg - Sixteen Chinese workers sub-contracted to build cellphone company Cell C's high-speed 4G network were detained in Durban for allegedly having invalid work permits, the home affairs department said on Sunday.
"We inspected 16 work permits at the ZTE Corporation's premises in Durban on Thursday, after receiving a complaint from someone about the validity of permits for workers in from China," home affairs inspectorate spokesperson Modiri Matthews told Sapa.
"We detained 16 people for further investigation... our system has to be checked and investigations are continuing... no charges or arrests have been made."
Home affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said the raid in Durban also resulted in the arrest of a home affairs official.
"It is our understanding that the arrest was related to the officer bringing foreigners into the country."
The raids on ZTE in Durban, as well as in Cape Town and Bloemfontein, were a joint effort between home affairs, the immigration inspectorate and police, he said.
The Sunday Times had reported that Chinese telecoms company ZTE Corporation was under investigation for allegedly bringing hundreds of illegal workers into the country every month.
It reported that ZTE had won a Cell C contract worth R2.9bn in January to roll out its high-speed network.
In a statement Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt said the company had entered into a contract with ZTE to expand its network in the southern parts of South Africa. He said Cell C however was not responsible for employee matters of its subcontractors.
"The contract between Cell C and ZTE is a "turnkey" contract. This means that ZTE as an independent contractor... is accountable for engaging its own employees and sub-contractors.
"Cell C is not responsible for the recruitment policies or processes of ZTE."
Reichelt said he had only become aware of alleged illegal Chinese workers when he was approached with questions by the Sunday newspaper.
"Cell C has asked ZTE to urgently provide it with information in this regard and has since been assured by ZTE that all of its workers have the necessary and legal documentation to work in South Africa."
ZTE spokesperson Chris Fuentes said it was a ZTE, and not a Cell C matter. The company had applied to home affairs a while ago to have work permits extended for its Chinese workers.
"It seems our applications were delayed... there is a major problem with the department... after the World Cup, home affairs was on strike," Fuentes said.
"It is not just us, but many multinational companies which have their applications delayed. What happened is that our people came here with a 90-day visa. We then asked for work permits. Even when the visas expired, the permits were not processed.
"What we perhaps should have done is promoted dialogue with the department, voicing our concerns and challenges that we had experienced with delays."
Fuentes said with such a short turnaround time for their contract they had been forced to look for workers from various places. They had not been trying to promote using only Chinese labourers.
Fuentes denied reports that 16 people had been detained. He said only three were detained in Durban because they did not have their passports on them. They were released soon after producing them. A person at the company's Cape Town branch was detained and released on Thursday.
"Right now we are collecting information to send out a release showing all our people are totally legal."
The Congress of SA Trade Unions said there was no justification for importing labour from overseas when unemployment in South Africa was so high.
"I am sure there are South African workers with the requisite skills," Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told Sapa.
If there weren't any people skilled enough, locals should be trained.
"It's outrageous. If the allegations are true, we can say it is tantamount to human trafficking... labour brokering on a global scale."