… denied sick leave and paid for actual hours worked

Illness costs poorly paid textile workers

KANANELO BOLOETSE

MASERU - Lesotho’s huge army of garment factory workers, unlike other formal sector workers, faces the vexing choice of either missing work and not being paid when sick, or reporting for duty and risk dying on the factory floor. This is because factory workers – many of them women – are paid based on the actual number of hours worked hence the constant dilemna they face when under the weather.

The cost of going to seek medical attention is forfeited working hours and the hourly income. This eats into the average M1400 factory workers earn per month, hardly enough to see them through to the next pay day in the first place. Because of the net cost of missing work, many factory workers are reluctant to go to the doctor and it is putting them at risk.

Also, the workers are denied time off to recover from illnesses without having to worry about money adding a crushing blow to their already desperate circumstances. Lesotho’s apparel and textile industry employs more than 40 000 workers, most of them women. According to Help Lesotho, over half of the 300 000 adults living with Human Immune Virus (HIV) are women.

With HIV prevalence at around 25 percent, Lesotho is one of the countries hit hardest by the epidemic globally. An estimated 330 000 people out of the two million population were living with HIV in 2016. In the same year, 9 900 people died from AIDS-related illnesses. It is being increasingly acknowledged that the contexts in which young women and girls live, often patriarchal and violent in nature, need to be addressed in order to reduce new infections, and ultimately end AIDS as a public health threat.

“Women, due to their vulnerability, cannot negotiate sex and are unable to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases like HIV,” ‘Matšepo Ramakoae, chairperson of the national women’s parliamentary caucus, said earlier this year in a statement on the International Day of Action for Women’s Health.

Although progress in the fight against the epidemic has been made in some areas – most Basotho women above 25 know their status, are on treatment and have reached viral suppression, according to the United States Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx, but there are still many barriers to overcome. Poor working conditions for factory workers, which include the stubborn no-work no-pay policy and wages that do not allow people to live what is considered a minimum socially acceptable standard of living are some of those barriers.

“Many factory workers often end up foregoing essential health services just so that they can make money to take care of their families. The pressure to be always at work, for survival, is central,” ‘Mopa ‘Marorisang Letseka of the Independent Democratic Unions of Lesotho (IDUL) said on Monday. IDUL is a factory workers’ association which, together with other trade unions, is currently trying to pressurise government to reinforce a minimum wage agreement that would guarantee at least a M2 000 monthly salary for factory workers.

Labour laws allow the minister of labour to mediate between labour unions and the employers in the wages advisory board to set minimum wages for specific sectors. Some observers have argued that the M2 000 minimum wage demanded by the factory workers will drive factories out of business. The government wants to keep the plants running and is thus walking a tight rope, balancing the interests of a desperately poor workforce and the mainstream economy.

Lesotho’s economy, which is about 170 times smaller than that of South Africa, has been lurching from crisis to crisis due in the main to a dearth of natural resources, political instability, a lack of capital and unsound economic policies. The unfavourable investment climate has spooked foreign direct investors from flocking to the country despite spirited attempts to entice them with tax breaks and amenable labour laws.

Finance minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro has bemoaned the lack of external investment which labour experts blame for the parlous state of the job market and burgeoning unemployment figures, especially among the youth. To reduce unemployment, the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) is currently building a M1 billion manufacturing hub in Butha-Buthe.

The entire project will have 51 factory shells, where dozens of women will be employed.At a press conference on Monday, IDUL women committee indicated that the low salaries in the industry were forcing women to exchange sex for money as another strategy to supplement their meagre incomes. “As the meagre wages they earn are often not enough to support themselves and their distant families, some resort to other survival strategies like sex work that expose them to HIV (Human Immune Virus) and other diseases,” Letseka said.

Public Eye tried repeatedly this week to get labour minister Keketso Rantšo to comment on these issues but her mobile phone rang unanswered. When she eventually answered, she said she was attending a series of meetings. Letseka argued on Monday that “women working in other sectors have paid leave”. She said she did not understand why women working in factories were being discriminated against. “They are workers too and deserve paid leave and better wages just like other women working in different sectors.”

Ramakoae this week indicated that a decision to resort to sex work as a survival strategy had all to do with one’s decency. “There are women who worked as factory workers for many years getting paid meagre salaries but never resorted to sex work for survival,” she said. “It is true women face formidable challenges – elimination of which we as women legislators see as a practical need which we have prioritised. But women cannot reduce themselves to sex slaves for survival. We should not, for survival, give men an opportunity to continue to violate us,” she said.

The labour code order of 1992 provides for paid sick leave on completion of a six-month continuous service with an employer. An employee is entitled, as a minimum, to sick leave on full pay for up to 12 days in the second six months’ continuous employment with the same employer. However, section 123 (5) of the same law gives the conditions under which the sick leave may be granted.

It states that an employee shall not be entitled to paid sick leave unless he or she produces to the employer a “certificate of incapacity signed by a registered medical practitioner” or by a person in charge of a dispensary or medical aid centre acting on behalf of a registered medical practitioner.

This effectively means that a pregnant factory worker who goes to the clinic for regular antenatal care forfeits the income for hours not worked while out on prenatal consultation.

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