MASERU — The dispute over the minimum wage for textile industry workers has taken a nasty turn.
Veteran trade unionist Macaefa Billy has been accused of threatening to kill a senior trade union rival and harm another he accuses of siding with employers.
But Billy quickly dismissed the allegations, saying he only warned his rivals they may be beaten up by workers who are “very angry with them”.
Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union (Lecawu) secretary-general Daniel Maraisane has claimed Billy threatened him with violence and also allegedly issued death threats against his National Union of Textiles counterpart Solong Senohe.
Billy, who is the leader of the Factory Workers’ Union (Fawu), allegedly issued the threats at a meeting called to negotiate new wages for factory workers on Monday.
The allegations are contained in a letter that Maraisane wrote to Labour Commissioner ‘Mamohale Motsoso complaining about Billy’s conduct and alleged threats.
“We kindly request (your) urgent intervention on the above-mentioned life threats to Mr Solong Senohe and threats of violence to Mr Daniel Maraisane by honourable Member of Parliament Mr Macaefa Billy,” reads part of the letter.
Billy, who is also the leader of the Lesotho Workers Party and an MP, has denied threatening to kill Senohe.
But he confirmed that he warned Maraisane against going to the factories because the workers would beat him up for allegedly siding with employers.
“I do not kill people, I do not have a record of killing people, and I have never killed anybody,” Billy told the Lesotho Times yesterday.
“I only say they are sell-outs, they connive with employers.
“But I still stress that if they go to the factories workers will assault them.
“The workers are very angry with them. I am expressing workers’ demands, not my views.”
Lecawu and Fawu are locked in a bitter dispute over how much the lowest paid textile worker should earn from October.
The two unions submitted different proposals to the Wage Advisory Board, a committee that is made up of unions, the government and employers.
Employers’ unions, the Lesotho Textile Employers Association (LTEA) and Lesotho Employers Association, are part of the board.
Lecawu proposed that the minimum wage be increased to M816 up from last year’s M763, representing a M53 increase which is enough to buy 10 loaves of bread or a 20kg packet of maize-meal plus a bottle of cooking oil.
Fawu has however proposed a M537 increase that Union leaders in tug-of-war will take the minimum wage to M1 300.
In addition Fawu, which has about 8 000 members, wants employers to pay workers M100 for housing and M300 for transport every month.
Billy says their proposal represents a “living wage and not a poverty wage”.
But Lecawu, which has 3 000 members, says these demands are just “a dream” and if the proposal is implemented textile companies would close shop, leaving many workers without jobs.
With nearly 35 000 on its payroll, the textile industry is Lesotho’s biggest employer after the government.
Fawu has since refused to endorse Lecawu’s proposal and has withdrawn from the negotiations with the employers.
Matters reached boiling point on Monday this week when Billy allegedly disrupted a meeting of the Wages Advisory Board committee at the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Billy is said to have become livid after he was told that since Fawu had withdrawn from the talks he could only sit in the meeting as an observer.
The board also told him that if Fawu wanted to be part of the negotiations it should make a formal request for “re-participation’ because it had pulled out.
Billy then allegedly threatened Senohe with death and told Maraisane that he “will not be able to visit the factories”.
In the letter to the labour commissioner, Maraisane says Billy “vehemently refused” to write a letter requesting to be formally accepted to the negotiations and insisted that “he will fully participate”.
“At this juncture, the employers decided to leave the meeting,” said the letter.
On why he refused to participate as an observer, Billy said: “We had gone to consult the workers, and the employers sided with Maraisane.”
LTEA president Nkopane Monyane, who attended the Monday meeting, confirmed that the meeting could not proceed because Billy insisted on taking part.
“It was very unbecoming of an MP to have acted the way he did,” Monyane said.
“These people were very accommodating because they were saying that he must write a formal letter seeking to re-participate in the talks.”