. . . as DC member warns Mosisili of election loss without addressing workers’ plight
FOR ‘Matselane Kotelo, Workers’ Day commemorations leave a bad taste in the mouth since she is faring marginally better than the thousands who are unemployed in Lesotho.
The factory worker’s explanation for the quagmire is simple; Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili appointed the wrong Labour and Employment ministers over the years who had “consistently failed” factory workers.
Despite supporting the Democratic Congress (DC) which Dr Mosisili leads, Ms Kotelo says the “appalling record” of Labour and Employment ministers over the years would dent the premier’s chances of winning the 3 June 2017 elections.
Ms Kotelo made this observation to the Lesotho Times during Workers’ Day commemorations held on Monday this week in Morija.
Held annually on 1 May, Worker’s Day is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement.
The commemorations were organised by the trade union United Textile Employees (UNITE) to highlight the challenges factory workers in Lesotho are facing.
Ms Kotelo was among the hundreds of factory workers who gathered to mark the event, which was also attended by Labour and Employment ministry Acting Principal Secretary Pitso Makosholo and the ministry’s Chief Information Officer Malefetsane Nchaka.
The factory workers accused the government of failing to ensure the minimum wage was raised to M2 020 per month, saying they had become “modern slaves” as a result.
Factory workers have been clamouring for the M2 020 minimum wage since 2011.
However, the event organisers told the factory workers they could not raise their concerns directly to the ministry officials since they did not have the authorisation to engage them.
This incensed the factory workers, including Ms Kotelo, who told this paper the failure by the authorities to ensure a “living wage” for factory industry had a telling effect on workers’ lives.
The 47-year old mother-of-four said her fifth child died years ago because she could not afford to take him to hospital.
“I was married at an early age and lost my husband when I was 32 years old, leaving me with five children to raise,” she said.
“Unfortunately, I lost my first born child because I didn’t have enough money to take him to hospital after he fell ill.”
Ms Kotelo said she and an estimated 35 000 other Basotho had no choice but to eke out a living at the factories, which mostly produce textile products for export to the United States.
The factories are able to export the textile products under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – a preferential trade law which provides for duty-free and quota free entry of goods into the US market from designated sub-Saharan African countries, including Lesotho. The law applies to both textile and non-textile goods.
Ms Kotelo said she managed to rise to the position of shop steward at one of the firms, but was later on fired for advocating for better pay and working conditions.
“I was very vocal and made no secret of the fact that we needed M2 020 as the minimum wage.
“However, within a short space of time, I was fired from work; one of the challenges we face daily as factory workers.”
She added: “After sometime, I was hired by another firm but the working conditions were not any better. I had no choice but to endure the bad working conditions and earning peanuts to provide for my family.”
Ms Kotelo said they were routinely taken for a ride with empty promises by government officials.
“They always lie to us. I wanted to appeal to the government representatives to tell my prime minister, whom I dearly love, that we should have salary increments reflecting into our bank accounts on 1 April 2017 and not the following months as has been the case previously,” said Ms Kotelo.
“The responsible ministers are always taking longer than necessary to approve the proposed salary increments and changes are usually effected in June at the earliest. For factory workers, the increments – no matter how small they may be – are very monumental and we need them reflecting in our accounts on 1 April 2017.”
The Qhoali constituency DC member said Dr Mosisili’s name was being “dragged in the mud” by the ministers.
“I urge my prime minister to thoroughly assess his cabinet because some of the ministers might be sabotaging him. His foot soldiers are not following his instructions and unfortunately he will lose the elections if he doesn’t act fast.”
“He must appoint people who will implement what he promises people at his rallies. I believe what he promises and have always given him my vote. I am from Qhoali constituency and DC deputy leader Mathibeli Mokhothu knows me very well.”
In his remarks at the event, Lesotho Labour Council representative Solong Senohe laid into the government for failing to ensure the Social Security Bill was debated in parliament and made into a law.
The bill seeks to protect factory workers from occupational hazards and to ensure dignified burials in case of death.
He said the failure to make the bill a law made workers vulnerable to abuse.
Mr Senohe gave the example of a recently deceased worker in Mazenod, saying he and other workers had to dig deep in their pockets for money to buy maize meal for the deceased’s children who had nothing to eat after the burial.
“It was a painful, heart-breaking situation. What makes the story even more painful is that senior staff in these factories get salaries ranging from M6 000 to M18 000 while the workers get peanuts.
“Factory workers are no different from the biblical Egyptian slaves. You die poor and your children inherit this poverty, with girl children turning to prostitution while male children seek refuge in crime.”
He urged members of the UNITE to make more recruitments, adding that they could only be able to fight for their rights if the workers’ membership of the trade union was more than 50 percent.
“It would be within our rights to make demands on your behalf or even go on strike if the union membership within one firm is 50 percent plus,” he said.
Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA) representative Masupha Moeketsi also pitched in by urging workers to get organised.
“We have reached a point where we need to mobilise ourselves and fight for what is rightfully ours. Unity is power,” Mr Moeketsi said.
Also speaking at the event, Mr Makosholo encouraged the workers to stand together in solidarity, saying it was important for them to fight for decent remuneration and conditions.
He said Lesotho was currently holding discussions on the International Labour Organisation’s a “Future of Work” initiative.
“The discussions are centred on work and society, decent jobs for all, organisation of work, production and the role of the government in work,” said Mr Makosholo.
“Lesotho needs to come up with clear policies which will allow foreigners to invest in our country and generate more jobs. We need to move to a point where we generate jobs that improve people’s lives by ensuring that employers meet minimum labour standards.”
Mr Makosholo said the objective could only be achieved if unions were strong, adding that they were working towards ensuring the Social Security Bill would soon become a law.
For his part, Mr Nchaka said the factory workers needed to understand that the ministry could not impose terms in negotiations over salaries and working conditions.
“The ministry is only operating as a watchdog by ensuring that employer-employee negotiations are within the constraints of the law,” he said.
“We only come in where negotiations are not within the constraints of the law as per the ILO principles on social dialogue.”