/ 9 May 2024

Thulas Nxesi emphasises workers’ rights over nationality in George building collapse

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Search-and-rescue operations continue after a four-storey block of flats under construction in George collapsed on Monday. Photo: Jaco Marais/Die Burger/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Rescue workers are drilling through rubble in an attempt to rescue survivors at a mangled apartment building in George, Western Cape, after eight workers died in the collapse earlier this week.  

The George municipality confirmed on Thursday afternoon that 37 people had been rescued from the rubble at 75 Victoria Street, leaving 44 still unaccounted for, after the multi-storey building collapsed shortly after 2pm on Monday.

The number of workers at the site was revised from the initial 75 people reported on Monday to 81, the department said, after it received records from project developer the Neo Victoria Development Group. 

“We haven’t been in contact but what we have heard is that they [Neo Victoria officials] came on site with their attorney, appointed by their insurer, but they did supply us with the names of the workers after the building collapsed on Monday,” George mayor Leon van Wyk said.

On Tuesday, Van Wyk confirmed that the project developer for the building was the Neo Victoria Development Group, which employed Liatel Developments as the contractor.

He said that the Neotrend Group had submitted plans to the George municipality on 22 December 2022 and these had been approved in July last year.

Responding to queries from the Mail & Guardian, Neo Victoria Development said it would co-operate with investigations, however, its priority was “to attend to victims of the disaster”.

“As landowners and developers, we have committed to work with the investigating teams to analyse and evaluate whatever is needed as soon as practically possible,” Neo Victoria’s spokesperson Chanel Fourie said. 

But the department said when it visited Neo Victoria Developments’ offices in George, as part of its investigation, they were locked. 

The department has since issued a subpoena. 

“The day we arrived, we tried to make contact with the client — up until today there has been no response from that particular person, so we will proceed with our legal process,” the labour department’s chief investigator David Esau told a press briefing in George on Thursday afternoon.

At this stage, it is “not about foreign nationals but about the rights of workers”, said Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi after speculation in the media about whether the workers were foreigners. 

“It is not about foreign nationals or nationals — it is about the human beings whose rights have to be protected, regardless of their nationality,” Nxesi said at the briefing.

The labour department said it had involved the departments of co-operative governance and traditional affairs; human settlements and international relations and co-operation in its investigation. 

Although the minister refrained from answering questions from the media about the nationality of the workers, he said his department would be engaging with the Mozambique, Malawian and Zimbabwean consulates. 

The minister added: “We don’t want to speculate; we will leave everything to the investigation and, once the investigation has been able to expose the facts, we will talk about that.”

Nxesi said a compensation fund for the workers would be discussed after the investigation by the police and the labour department had been completed. 

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the province had appointed an independent structural engineer who had already started investigating the cause of the building collapse.

Western Cape MEC Anton Bredell said those responsible needed to be brought to account.

“I’m grateful that there are different clusters that are doing this investigation, so that we can ensure and make sure that investigation is independent, and that we will not leave any stone untouched to get to the bottom of this, and the people responsible can be held accountable,” he said at the press briefing. 

Meanwhile, rescue workers said they would continue working around the clock to retrieve any workers who were still stuck under the rubble. 

“The international standard is three days for a rescue operation; we will work until the weekend to identify where people are trapped,” said Colin Deiner, the chief director for the Western Cape provincial disaster management services.