MASERU — When Nthato Ralele found a job as a tailor she thought her worries were finally over.
But four years down the line, Ralele is a broken woman.
Ralele, a tailor at one of the garment factories in Maseru, looks miserable.
Life has not turned out the way she had thought.
She says the working hours are long but the pay is miserable.
No matter how she tries to tighten her budget, she still struggles to make ends meet.
Ralele says she is living a hand-to-mouth existence. She does not have any savings.
She has not even managed to buy herself a decent pair of shoes, she says.
She says she earns so little that she struggles to stretch it to the next pay day.
To compound her problems, Ralele says she does not know how much she earns a month because her pay constantly varies.
After four years, she is still not regarded as a permanent employee.
Under Lesotho’s labour laws, she should have been confirmed as a permanent employee after serving a probationary period of three months.
She says she is still regarded as a “casual” worker.
What this means in practice is that she has no job security. In fact, she can be fired any time.
This breeds an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in her job, she says.
In addition she cannot take paid leave, be it maternity or sick leave, as that is only for permanent employees.
“I do not have a constant salary. I am still being treated like someone who is on probation. My salary has not been increased in the past four years,” Ralele says.
She says she has tried several times in the past to speak to her supervisors to address her concerns without success.
“The supervisors have not given me a positive answer. They are afraid to take our complaints to the employers because they also fear to lose their jobs,” she said.
Sometimes when she gets sick, she has no option but to go to work.
“We are scared to ask for off-days to see the doctor when we get sick because we could lose our jobs. Our employers do not accept sick notes from the doctor.
“We are told that if we take leave we will not be paid. They also do not pay for maternity leave. Sometimes you go home because you feel sick and when you come back you would find that someone else has been hired to replace you.”
She said out of desperation, most factory workers have not gone on maternity leave even when they are due for delivery.
“Sometimes pregnant women come to work even when they are about to give birth. Most of them miss their medical check-ups because they fear to lose their jobs.
“On many occasions sickly workers also come to work no matter how bad they are. You miss a day, you are fired or you will not get paid,” she says.
The situation is rampant in most garment factories in Maseru.
Ralele says garment factory workers are sometimes forced to work overtime without pay.
Work at the factories starts at 7am, only ending 10 hours later at 5pm. The workers however take an hour’s break for lunch.
Ralele says workers are however sometimes forced to work the whole day without a break.
“The employers do not treat us well. They make us work the whole day and do not want to pay for the extra hours we put in,” she says.
Thabiso Mobe, also a factory worker, says he was approved as a permanent employee two years ago.
But his salary is still stuck at M650 a month, Mobe said.
“I am still getting the M650 I was receiving when I was a casual worker. I asked the bosses about it and they threatened to fire me.
“They said they would give my job to someone else who would accept the money.
“They said I either accepted what they gave me or I would be fired with immediate effect.
“I had to stop asking questions because I needed the job. I could not risk losing it,” Mobe says.
Mobe says it was common knowledge that factory workers were being oppressed.
“We are not allowed to express our grievances. You make a slight mistake, you are fired without pay.
“We are not allowed to question the employer’s decisions even when it is clear the decisions are unreasonable.
“Whatever they demand goes, no matter how it impacts on us. They use us like slaves. Sometimes they want us to do more even when we meet our daily targets.”
The workers are supposed to produce at least 500 T-shirts a day.
Some factory workers claim they have not been paid with no reasons being given.
Lerato Mofaso says she has not received her salary for the past two months.
Mofaso says her employers appear not interested in sorting out her problem.
She says she has been forced over the past two months to borrow money from “loan sharks” to survive.
She says she is desperate to get the salary arrears to clear her mounting debts.
“I was forced to get a loan so that I could continue coming to work even though I was not paid. I was not paid for two months,” Mofaso says.
She says she was not sure if she is going to recover her money one day.
“I am completely in the dark. Nobody has told me if I am going to get paid or not. I am not sure if the employer knows about me,” she says.
While others have not been paid, ‘Malusi said she had to borrow money from friends because her salary had been delayed.
“They (factory owners) pay salaries when they want. We do not know when the official pay day is. They sometimes pay us two or three weeks later than the rest of the workers,” ‘Malusi says.
Surprisingly, ‘Malusi says she has not complained about the delay fearing that she would be fired.
“We are not supposed to complain about a thing or you will be thrown out. No one wants to lose their job. So we learn to accept the bad treatment,” she says.
Tumelo Sentse says he is worried by the absence of an insurance policy for workers.
Sentse says when he hurt himself with a scissors last June he was asked to pay his own medical costs.
“When I demanded compensation I was told that it was not their fault that I had cut myself. They said they would not pay for my own mistakes.
“I heard that they were not paying for anyone’s medical fees when they get injured at work,” he says.
He says the general environment for workers was not healthy.
“The roofs are leaking. Water pours in when it rains. Even then we are not allowed to switch off the machines. We fear that there could a serious fire accident.”
He says the ventilation system in the workshops were not good enough.
“In hot seasons we bake in the workshops because the ventilation system is not good enough.
“In winter the place is bitingly cold. Yet we are expected to meet targets without fail,” Sentse says.
He says their plight worsened after some factory workers last September petitioned parliament to intervene to improve the working conditions of factory workers.
The workers who were represented by the Factory Workers Union asked parliament to help improve their “miserable working conditions and meagre wages”.
Most of the workers were from China Garments Manufacturers, Sun Textiles, C & Y Garments, Santikon and Tai Yuan.
The move appeared to have infuriated factory owners the majority of whom are Chinese and Taiwanese.
The workers wanted parliament to amend the Labour Code passed in 1992 to include worker-friendly laws governing maternity leave, contributory burial schemes and force factory owners to pay reasonable wages.
They also wanted to push factory workers to earn a monthly wage of M1 500 a month, up from the M650 that the lowest paid worker earns in the factories.
Tséole Ramaliehe, the national organiser of the Lesotho Clothing Allied Workers Union (LECAWU), says conditions for textile workers are “really bad”.
Ramaliehe says the Labour Code did not have enough safeguards to protect workers and left them badly exposed to exploitation by employers.
“Factory employees work under bad conditions. Unfortunately the Labour Code does not protect them.
“It leaves enough space for employers to do as they like, no matter how badly it could affect employees,” Ramaliehe says.
He says female factory workers were given only two weeks for maternity leave.
“This is grossly unfair compared to civil servants’ who get six weeks maternity leave.”
He also says the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1977 does not cover factory workers.
“The Act says that only injured employees would be compensated. But factory workers inhale dangerous chemicals almost every day and are not entitled to compensation,” he says.
“LECAWU has written letters to parliament portfolio committee to propose the amendment of the Act in favour of the textile factory workers.”
He says factory workers have complained that they were afraid to retire because they would only get their severance pay after a year.
“That should not be happening. We are still trying to negotiate such laws so that an employee gets his severance pay immediately after retirement,” Ramaliehe said.
A spokesman of the Association of Lesotho Employers and Business which represents factory owners refused to comment when contacted by the Lesotho Times yesterday.