Sat. Jul 20th, 2019

Textile wages: tragic tale of bungled pacts

NEO SENOKO

MASERU – The government of Lesotho does not have the will to deal appropriately with issues of minimum wage and salary structures in the textile industry, the local workers unions have said.

The unions are also accusing the national Wages Advisory Board of being inoperative and subject to interests other than those of the workers.

This, the unions say, is evidenced by the fact that most of the workers’ demands regarding the methods of fixing wages are rarely addressed.

It is these and other reasons which prompted the three unions of the United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing and Textile Allied Workers Union (NACTWU) and Lentsoe La Sechaba (LSWU) to write to the International Labour Organisaion (ILO) to intervene and ensure that the government sticks to labour laws.

In their letter to the international body, dated February this year, the three unions alleged that the government of Lesotho does not observe the minimum wage fixing machinery convention number 26 of 1928.

The convention concerns the creation of minimum wage fixing machinery for all members of ILO.

Article three of the ILO convention states that each member which ratifies the convention shall be free to decide the nature and form of the minimum wage-fixing machinery, and the methods to be followed in its operations.

Employers and workers concerned shall be associated in the operation of the machinery, in such manner and to such extend . . . in equal numbers and on equal terms, as may be determined by national laws and regulations, it goes on to say.

It also says minimum rates of wages which have been fixed shall be binding on the employers and workers concerned so as not to be subject to abatement by them, by individual agreement, . . . except with general or particular authorisation of the competent authority, by collective agreement.

Unions therefore say the Lesotho government is failing to comply with this article due to the lack of effective consultation with workers’ representatives and their effective associations in the operation of the machinery. Their argument is that they are denied the opportunity to meaningfully participate.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has, however, denied the accusations, revealing that workers’ unions have failed to follow proper protocol in dealing with their issues. The ministry says unions have messed up the entire negotiation process and now they are shifting the blame.

According to the unions, in 2018, the government had publicly agreed to M2,000 as a minimum wage in the textile sector following a series of strikes by factory workers.

At the later stages, however, matters took a new twist as salary adjustments that were made did not adhere to the promises that were earlier announced.

Instead of M2,000 as a minimum wage in the sector, government acted against its word, offering the amount only to the machine operators. In other categories salaries were adjusted to M1,800 and M1,600 respectively.

Following the adjustments, another announcement was made as per the law that workers would start to enjoy improved salaries in April that year but workers’ representatives say they were left amazed as that agreement was also breached and workers only started receiving the improved salaries in September 2018.

To their astonishment, unions say, the new and improved salaries which came into effect in September did not come with all the other arrears from April as per the labour laws.

Now workers’ unions are at loggerheads with government citing that factory workers should be given what is due to them.

“Our main request is that workers should be paid arears for those five months between April and August because we thought the money would come jointly with the new salaries in September but that did not happen.

“We tried to talk to our government regarding the issue but they did not want to listen to us hence our decision to write to the International Labour Organisation to intervene,” said Qamaka Seeko Nts’ene in an interview with Public Eye on Tuesday.

Nts’ene is a member of the United Textiles Employees (UNITE).

According to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, workers’ unions jumped ship in the process of negotiations with the Ministry and went on to petition Prime Minister Tom Thabane urging him to take charge, facilitate and ensure that arrears are paid. In their petition unions also said they have lost hope in the ministry’s ability to run their affairs effectively.

Following the petition, the Prime Minister then formed a temporary committee with the sole mandate of dealing with the issue.

“At this point you should understand that the matter was now out of our hands because they jumped and went straight to the Prime Minister. The committee then directed our ministry to implement the recommendations that were made and that is when we issued out a gazette outlining the new salary structures,” Public Relations Manager in the Ministry of Labour, Mamolise Falatsa, revealed in an interview with Public Eye on Wednesday this week.

The gazette was issued on April 16 2018.

Before the gazette was signed by labour minister, Keketso Rants’o, Falatsa said all parties including the worker’s unions agreed that the new salary structures would only come into effect in September that year mainly because the representatives of the employers said they could not afford to pay the said arrears.

“At that point they agreed and did not raise all these issues they are talking about now because at that time they were only happy with the new adjustments. So we find it strange that now they come back and want to claim the money which they failed to stand up for since the beginning,” the Falatsa added.

She went on to clarify that even the fact that it was the temporary committee that had to advise her ministry was wrong. That, according to her, was the responsibility of the advisory board and the situation could have been different if proper procedures were followed.

Factory workers have been fighting for decent wages for a long time in Lesotho, resulting in a series of protests in the industry.

In 2018, the sector which employs around 40, 000 workers, brought the country to a standstill, as workers took to the streets for nine days to demand better salaries. The mobilisation came at great cost to the workers as they lost several days’ pay.

Both the police and army tried to contain the demonstrations that left one person and several injured.

The country’s textile and apparel wages are among the lowest paid worldwide.

In the last 15 years, Lesotho’s garment and textile industry has become one of the biggest in Africa. In 2010 exports in the industry were valued at around US$476 million (more than M6 billion).

The industry is the largest private sector employer in the country and its exports constituted 20 percent of the national GDP in 2015.

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