Maputsoe textile firm fires 900 workers

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Lekhetho Ntsukunyane and Mohau Serabele

Maputsoe-based Ace Apparel International fired 900 workers this week for taking part in an illegal strike.

The workers downed tools on 10 February following a bloody fight between a line manager and a machine operator.

The conflict resulted in the immediate resignation of the machine operator in protest after he was issued with a warning letter by the company. The operator felt he had not been treated fairly by the company as his adversary was allegedly never reprimanded for the clash.

Sources at the clothing manufacturing company told the Lesotho Times that the manager in question had fallen out with most of the workers because of the way he allegedly ill-treated them. The workers, the sources added, had repeatedly asked the company to fire the manager to no avail.

However, on the day in question, the manager and machine operator are said to have argued over work-related issues, resulting in a fistfight, the sources added. After the fight, management is said to have issued the operator with a warning letter, which the sources said angered the rest of the workforce.

According to the sources, when the operator decided to resign in protest, almost half of the company’s estimated 2000 workers downed tools in solidarity.

“The workers said they would not end the strike until their colleague was back at work. But instead of the company backing down, it fired the workers on Monday this week. The company immediately hired new workers as there are always people at the gate looking for employment,” one of the sources told the Lesotho Times.

Prominent trade unionist, Bahlakoana Lebakae, of the United Textile Employees (UNITE), confirmed the jobs carnage at Ace Apparel. Mr Lebakae added not even the intervention by UNITE, other textile workers’ unions, the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) and Labour Department this week could reverse the company’s decision to dismiss the 900 workers.

According to Mr Lebakae, the management announced in Monday’s stakeholders’ meeting that the workers had been fired with effect from Wednesday last week for taking part in an illegal strike.

However, Mr Lebakae said the workers only received their letters of dismissal on Monday this week.

Mr Lebakae told the Lesotho Times that the dismissals were “the most shocking I have seen in my many years of experience as a trade unionist because of the huge number of workers involved”.

He also said officials from UNITE and other trade unions would be visiting Ace Apparel today to meet with the fired workers and prepare a case against their “unfair” dismissal. The unions intend to report the case to the Directorate on Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR), according to Mr Lebakae.

“We are challenging that dismissal. It is unfair for the workers to be dismissed just like that. The reason why those workers went on strike was because they felt the management was discriminatory in dealing with the fight between the line manager and machine operator,” Mr Lebakae said.

“The Labour Code requires that where workers of the same company have engaged in a physical fight regardless of whether the confrontation took place within the firm or outside, once that comes to management’s attention, they should suspend both workers with immediate effect and conduct a hearing. We have also learnt that the workers were dismissed without disciplinary hearings as required by the law.”

According to Mr Lebakae, the fight could have been avoided had management taken time to engage the workers on their grievances.

“From what I have gathered, it appears the operator met with the line manager who was in the company of another supervisor. This was after the initial confrontation which had prompted the operator’s resignation. They met outside the company’s premises, and started fighting again. I am told the supervisor helped his colleague to overpower the operator and the line manager used a pair of scissors to repeatedly stab the operator,” Mr Lebakae said.

He added an assault case was opened with the Maputsoe police by the operator, but the Lesotho Times could not immediately verify Mr Lebakae’s statement.

“After this latest fight, the situation became worse as the workers vowed to continue with their strike, saying they would only return to work after the line manager had been fired,” Mr Lebakae said.

“In fact, the bad blood between the workers and the line manager goes a long way. In 2014, the workers embarked on another strike where they wanted the management to fire the line manager they accused of abusing them. However, the workers’ request was not successful, and the bad blood continued until the fight on 10 February.”

When the Lesotho Times crew visited the factory yesterday afternoon, neither the line manager nor machine operator could be located for interviews. However, some of the fired workers were milling outside the company which is said to employ about 2000 people, most of them women.

It was an atmosphere of utter helplessness and despair as the workers said their dismissal was unjust since some of them had worked for the company for more than 10 years. The company is said to be owned by South Africans, but the Lesotho Times could also not immediately confirm this information.

One of the dismissed workers, ’Matebello Mohapi, who is a single mother of three, yesterday told the Lesotho Times: “I have worked for this factory for nearly nine years and they can’t just fire me for no apparent reason.

“I feel this is unfair because I was not given a hearing.

“In fact, all the fired workers were given letters inviting them to a disciplinary hearing which was to be held on 15 February.

“But when we got there, there was nothing like that. The management kept us waiting all day and nobody was there to hear our side of the story.”

According to her letter, the hearing was supposed to commence at 8am. The letter further states failure to attend the hearing would not invalidate the proceedings, “except where a valid reason is advanced”.

However, according to Ms Mohapi, none of the “900 or more” workers were afforded the hearing.

“We have been coming here to the factory gate hoping that we will be called for the hearing but nothing has happened,” she said.

“But on Monday, we were shocked to be given letters of dismissal. The letters were dated 16 February, and we were all stunned by the turn of events.”

The Lesotho Times is in possession of a copy of the dismissal letters, which partly reads: “This letter serves to inform you that the management has decided to terminate your employment contract for the following reasons:

“Unlawful work stoppage (In that on or about the 10th February 2016, you unlawfully stopped working despite warnings being issued to you by the management, thus causing loss to the company); the management decided to continue with the hearings as you refused to participate {sic}; you were singing at the gate trying to frustrate the due process of the hearing thus denied yourself the opportunity to be heard. The company does not have local remedies for you to exhaust.”

The Lesotho Times was refused entry onto the factory premises to meet with the management on the dismissals. A security guard on duty said the crew should call the office today.

Attempts to get the management’s side of the story by telephone also failed as a woman who took the call told the reporter to “call tomorrow when the right boss to talk to you is here”.

Meanwhile, some of the fired, long-serving workers said they were not happy with the terminal benefits they were given by the company following their dismissal.

One such disgruntled “victim” was Ester Mokoena, who told the Lesotho Times she started working at Ace Apparel in 2006 but was given “only M196 as terminal benefits”.

Ms Mokoena showed the Lesotho Times her payslip which confirmed the payout.

“I am deeply saddened. I cannot work for these people for so long and get this little amount,” Ms Mokoena said.

“I feel frustrated. How am I going to send my daughter to school or buy food for the family when I am no longer employed? The Labour Department should intervene in this matter and save us from starvation and exploitation,” she said.

Another fired worker, ’Matokelo Leuta, said she was only given M533 in terminal benefits after serving the company “for many years”.

Ms Leuta said she was not sure “what to do and where to go”.

She added: “I want to go and look for employment at another factory but there is no guarantee that I will get the job because there are so many of us looking for jobs now after this dismissal.”

Ace Apparel is an internationally acclaimed textile manufacturing brand, and established its Maputsoe branch in 2005.

The company produces clothes ranging from jeans to shirts for the export market.

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