By Caswell Tlali
MASERU — China Garments Manufacturers (CGM) has fired a witness who was expected to testify against the company in a tax evasion case brought by the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA).
The witness, Budhasiri Sunawardana, is expected to go back to his country Sri Lanka sometime this week.
He becomes the fourth potential witness to be dismissed by CGM.
Sunawardana was fired from his job after the CGM management found him guilty of “gross misconduct of instigating, inciting, and misleading the workforce” into taking action against the company last week.
Sunawardana was charged with misconduct for writing a petition to the Lesotho National Development Corporation, Labour Commissioner ’Mamohale Matsoso, finance and trade ministers and the LRA
commissioner general asking them to intervene in their dispute with the CGM management.
The petition, signed by 13 expatriate workers and which was written on May 26, urged the government to intervene after CGM failed to pay the workers’ overseas portion of their salaries for the past three months.
It also wanted the government to protect witnesses who had testified in the ongoing tax evasion case against CGM.
The petition also said witnesses in the CGM tax evasion case were being targeted for dismissal and deportation.
“Witnesses in the LRA’s investigations of CGM are being fired by the company for telling the truth,” read part of the petition.
“Those same witnesses are being deported simply because they gave information to the LRA.
“Those that are witnesses in the company’s labour case against a former senior director are being fired, intimidated and deported.”
Speaking to the Sunday Express, Sunawardana said all they wanted was for the “Lesotho authorities to protect us and advise CGM to pay us the moneys due to us”.
“We mean no harm to the company, we just want it to fulfil its promises by paying our overseas portions,”
In their petition last month, the workers also accused the firm of “using the police to bring frivolous charges against any person who tells the truth about the company’s tax issues”.
CGM has however responded to the petition by getting rid of the petition signatories and witnesses in the LRA investigation.
The first witness to be sent packing was Ranil Yapa, also a Sri Lankan, who was deported despite a High Court order barring the deportation.
After Yapa, the CGM terminated the contract of a Filipino worker called Wesley who had also given the LRA crucial information to the LRA.
Late last month the company fired another Sri Lankan, Lalith Aluthgama, for insulting a fellow expatriate worker.
But expatriate employees who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal told this paper that swearing and rude language were common at the firm when people are under pressure and that the management did not usually take action against offenders.
They say Aluthgama was already targeted by the management when he insulted his fellow worker.
“Lalith (Aluthgama) is one of us who told the revenue authority the whole truth when we were interviewed about the CGM’s tax evasion,” the source said.
“He was going to be the state witness in the case against CGM.
“I wonder if those who have left the country will be brought back to testify,” he said.
All these witnesses were also going to testify against the CGM in a case in which a former director, Krish Moodley, has sued it for M5 million.
Moodley claims that the company refused to pay him his overseas benefits when he retired last year.
Like all CGM expatriate workers, Moodley was paid part of his salary overseas in a scheme that robbed the LRA revenue of pay-as-you-earn tax.
Moodley will be a key witness if the LRA decides to bring charges against CGM.
LRA spokesperson Pheello Mphana told this paper that “the taxman does not have powers to protect his potential witnesses”.
“If a worker who reported his employer to the LRA for a tax related crime gets into trouble because of that, the LRA will not have any power to protect him as a witness,” Mphana said.
“There is no witness protection policy here.
“I think the prosecution authority, the Director of Public Prosecution, is the one who can deal with such matters,” he said.