17 June 2024 | 08:02 AM

#Guptaleaks: How Gupta companies faked their way around visa restrictions

Key Takeaways

Gupta agents Ashu Chawla and Naresh Khosla fraudulently orchestrated South African work permits for Indian nationals by falsifying and backdating the Indian employment contracts on which these permits hinge.

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This administrative sleight of hand allowed the Guptas to import and employ foreign labour at the expense of local jobseekers, and conveniently sidestepped the onerous legal red tape meant to protect South African workers from being overlooked in favour of foreign employees.

Chawla was a key Gupta lieutenant and director of the now-bust Sahara Computers (Pty) Ltd (Sahara Computers), as well as its counterpart in India, Sahara Computer and Electronics Limited (SCEL).

Khosla was Chawla’s co-director on SES Technologies, another Indian company belonging to the Guptas. The #GuptaLeaks show how the pair abused their positions as directors to sign off on the dodgy contracts.

Home Affairs

As Parliament’s Home Affairs committee last week heard officials explain the intricacies of the Gupta family’s dubious early nationalisation, it also emerged that scores of their non-South African employees were working locally using “intra-company transfer visas”.

Department of Home Affairs Director General of Immigration Jackson McKay told committee members in his written answers that none of the foreign employees employed by ANN7, or any other Gupta company, were working in South Africa using visitor or tourist visas.

Instead, these Indian nationals were issued with “intra-company transfer” permits. McKay told the committee that an earlier raid on the Gupta-owned television station found 31 Indian nationals working for ANN7 under such permits. A further nine were in South Africa using visitor’s permits, but only to attend meetings.

This means at least 40 foreign employees were working at ANN7 alone.

In March this year, former ANN7 editor and Gupta-employee-turned-whistleblower Rajesh Sundaram published his book, Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV. In it, he tells of his turbulent months working for the Gupta family as they tried to get the fledgling television news station off the ground. He also directly implicates Chawla in circumventing visa requirements.

“I had heard his [Chawla’s] name mentioned for the first time when I was asked to apply for my temporary residence permit under the intra-company transfer process before I left India for South Africa.” Sundaram wrote.

Sundaram tells how an Indian executive of one of the main shareholders of Infinity Media, ANN7’s holding company, lamented about the difficulties in obtaining a work visa for foreigners in South Africa.

“It can take months to get a South African work permit. It is a cumbersome process. We have to advertise the position in South African newspapers and then wait for six months, after which we provide evidence that we have not found a suitable local candidate. Only then can we start the process of getting a work permit. Even so, if there is an official who does not agree, the request for a work permit can still be rejected.”

But they had a plan.

“But Ashu-ji [Chawla] is a genius, and he has found a way around it. We will show the visas of people going to work in South Africa as intra-company transfer. Just fill in the visa form, get police and medical clearance and get back to my office. My office will issue papers certifying that you are an employee of Essel Media [the shareholder in Infinity Media] being transferred to South Africa.”

Later in the book, Sundaram asked the same Indian executive a question that hinted at how the operation worked:

“But all the people I have recruited to be the core team to launch ANN7 have got contracts from Infinity Media [in South Africa] and not Essel Media [in India]. They have never worked for Essel Media. I hope this is not illegal?”

  • Click on the evidence docket to access the information we used for our investigation.
Legal hoops

The Immigration Act, 2002 and its regulations require a South African business seeking to employ a foreign national to first jump through a plethora of legal hoops before the foreign employee can take up work in a local business.

Björn van Niekerk, operations director for Intergate Immigration, told News24 that a local employer needs to consider South African applicants for the position first.

“An employer intending to employ a foreigner is required to confirm that that they have first made a reasonable effort to find, interview and consider South African applicants for the position that is required to be filled. The employer must confirm that:

  • they have conducted a diligent search for a suitable South African candidate;
  • they were unable to find a suitable South African with the relevant skills, experience etc.

The lengths to which the employer went to advertise the position nationally, how many South Africans were interviewed, and why the South African candidates interviewed were not considered would all be taken into account. “

“These efforts are then assessed by the Department of Labour which will offer a recommendation based on whether they consider the need for a foreigner to be employed, over any potential South African, to be justified. The applicant also needs to have their qualifications assessed and evaluated by SAQA.”

 These requirements are meant to protect South African job seekers, and to prevent employers from simply shipping in cheap labour from overseas to do the jobs local citizens can perform.

But the Gupta family found a way to circumvent these requirements.

Intra-company transfers

By claiming that these employees were “inter-company transfer visa” instead of “general work visa” applications, Chawla and his Sahara Computers only needed to show that these employees had been in the service of one of their Indian sister companies for a period of at least six months.

They did this by falsifying and backdating the Indian employment contracts struck with these workers.

The fraud was trivialised because Chawla was also the director of the Indian companies creating the forged records, as well as the South African Sahara Computers that employed them locally. The same occurred between Essel Media and Infinity Media, where the directors of the two companies arranged employment contracts for ANN7 staff from India.

Karan Singh

The documents and e-mails contained in the #GuptaLeaks shed some light on the logistics of the scheme. Between October 15 and December 15, 2014, the 22-year old Karan Singh visited South Africa from his home country of India on the invitation of Sahara Computers and Chawla. He was later joined by his parents and sister: Sunil, Sunita and Vidushi Yadav were also invited by Sahara Computers on tourist visas from December 4 to 10, 2014.

The invitation letter to Singh’s parents claimed that Singh was an intern at Sahara Computers. This is despite a tourist visa prohibiting a foreigner from being employed in the country while issued with such a visa.

During his time in South Africa, Singh also met with Jitendra Tiwari, the human resources professional for Sahara Computers. Tiwari was responsible for the majority of the employment agreements between the foreign employees and Sahara, and the #GuptaLeaks show he was involved with most of the visa applications contained therein. Flight bookings contained in the Gupta Leaks show that Tiwari accompanied Singh and his family on a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back between December 8 and 10, 2014.

On December 16, 2014, the day after their return to India, Chawla forwarded Singh’s passport to Tiwari, who responded with a draft employment contract between Singh and the South African Sahara Computers, appointing Singh as a “Project Manager” from January 12, 2015.

Shortly afterwards, Chawla sent an email to Naresh Khosla, a fellow director at SES Technologies in India, containing the passport of Singh.

“Please send me an appointment letter in SES for about 8 months before as a project Manager and I am doing inter company Transfer for him.”

Khosla responded within hours, attaching a backdated appointment letter stating that Singh was appointed as a project manager at SES Technologies. SES Technologies is an Indian company of which Chawla and Khosla were co-directors.

Although the letter was backdated to May 16, 2014, the pair made a mistake. Singh’s commencement date with SES Technologies would only be on July 21, 2014, an error that was picked up on by the South African consulate. They refused Singh his visa on the basis that he had not been employed with SES Technologies for long enough, and on January 11, 2015, Singh wrote to Chawla:

“I will submit [my visa application] tomorrow. They had rejected the application before because the letter [you] had send earlier had date of joining as 21 July 2014, so [they rejected] it as it was not completing 6 months. Will submit it again tomorrow attaching the letter u had again sent me showing 21 May 2014 as the joining date for 6 months in India. Hope the embassy will not complain for the change in date.”(sic)

The consulate didn’t complain, and Singh obtained his visa. He landed at OR Tambo International Airport on February 8, 2015. Two days later – on February 10, 2015 – Singh sent Chawla an email containing a scan of his passport and work permit, proudly displaying the words “intra-company transfer permit”.

Esheetaa Gupta

A second example originated late in March of 2014. Chawla received an email from Sanjeev Gupta, enclosing his daughter Esheetaa’s resume and payslip for April 2014. Sanjeev Gupta, while unrelated to brothers Tony, Atul and Ajay, was closely connected with the Bank of Baroda’s chief executive officer in South Africa, Murari Lal Sharma. So close, in fact, that Esheetaa Gupta’s resume used Sharma’s mobile number as her South African contact number.

Esheetaa Gupta, an intellectual property lawyer working for a WIPRO Technologies in India, was seemingly keen to secure work in South Africa.

On April 4, 2014, Chawla forwarded Esheetaa Gupta’s passport, CV and payslip to his secretary. Later that same day, she scanned and forwarded a bundle of documents signed by Chawla.

Among these was an employment agreement between Sahara Computers and Esheetaa Gupta, confirming she would be appointed as an “IP Analyst” from May 15, 2014. It contained a letter from Sahara Computers to the South African consulate, stating the following:

“This letter serves to confirm that Ms Esheetaa Gupta will be transferred from SES Technologies to Sahara Computers (Pty) Ltd for a period of 24 months. This transfer qualifies as an intra-company transfer since these companies form part of the same global group. Esheetaa Gupta holds a foreign contract of employment with SES Technologies in India.”

It also contained a letter dated April 4, 2014, to the South African consulate (erroneously referred to as an “embassy”) from SES Technologies, the same company used to fabricate the employment contract for Singh. The letter from SES Technologies was also signed by Chawla and contained an exact copy of the paragraph confirming that Esheetaa Gupta was employed by SES Technologies.

These documents were sent to Esheetaa Gupta’s father on the same day. Esheetaa Gupta responded to Chawla on May 8, 2014, requesting additional documents, and in particular she required a “job offer letter from Indian company provided earlier at the time of employment”.

A comedy of errors and mistakes followed, as Chawla and his secretary compiled the documents requested by Esheetaa Gupta.

The pair could not keep their story straight. Suddenly, the employment confirmation letters and backdated employment offer, previously done on the SES Technologies letterhead, resurfaced sporting SCEL letterheads, Sahara Computer’s sister company in India.

The initial set of documents also claimed that Esheetaa Gupta had started working for SCEL as an IP analyst in 2010, a peculiar oddity considering that her resume claimed that she only began working in the intellectual property field a full year and a half later, in June of 2011. Her resume stated that at the time she was employed as a project trainee at Nucleus Software Exports Limited.

The final backdated employment offer sent to Esheetaa Gupta had a more reasonable commencement date of June 27, 2013, although this still does not explain why Esheetaa Gupta’s resume sent to Chawla in April 2014 does not mention either SES Technologies or SCEL in either her employment history or references.

It also does not explain how she obtained a payslip for April 2014 as an employee of WIPRO Technologies, if she was an employee of either SCEL or SES Technologies at the time.

Comment Requested

Both Esheetaa Gupta and Karan Singh were sent detailed questions regarding these allegations. Both were asked to confirm their employment history with either SES Technologies or SCEL, and the reasons for the subsequent intra company transfers.

Despite follow-up requests, neither Singh nor Gupta have responded to our requests for comment.

Khosla was also requested to provide comment on the evidence contained in the #GuptaLeaks but did not respond to our questions.

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Questions were also e-mailed and sent via Whatsapp to both Ashu Chawla and his wife, Harsh Chawla.

No response has been forthcoming.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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