Police disperse unions at Maseru Bridge border
MAMELLO SEBATANE and ’MAKERESEME LETUKA
MASERU – The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has condemned the Lesotho government’s of oppressive tactics against workers and their union bashing tendencies.
NUMSA says workers must be allowed to organise freely, and supported the demands of Lesotho’s factory workers, including the demand for a living wage. At least 40 thousand workers who are mostly women, in the textile, clothing and garment industry have been on strike in response to poor working conditions and low wages.
Workers have been protesting against their working conditions and wage increases but they have been met with a violent response from the government.
The wage dispute arises from the government’s failure to announce wage increases for textile, garment, shoe, and leather workers for the past two years. The last wage gazette was published in 2019 and wages for workers have not been increased since.
According to the country’s labour laws, the wages gazette must be published annually, but the government is using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for not increasing minimum wages.
Workers complain that they earn very low wages which can no longer sustain them as prices of goods have increased dramatically since the first Covid-19 lockdown last year. The cost of basic food has sky rocketed. For example, cooking oil has more than doubled in price.
During the demonstrations, two people were killed while several others were injured. One person was run over by a truck while another was shot dead by soldiers in an attempt to disperse violent protesters.
Cases of damage to property were also reported while a number of businesses were looted.
In a turn of events government finally released a minimum wage gazette guaranteeing factory workers a 14 percent hike translating into improved salaries for the fiscal year 2021/21.
Local trade unions on Wednesday gathered at Maseru Border Gate awaiting to join a NUMSA solidarity protest against low wages and police brutality in Lesotho.
Present were representations from the Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA), the National Clothing and Textile Allied Workers ‘Union (NACTWU), Lentsoe la Basotho and the United Textile Employees (UNITE).
While waiting for NUMSA members to cross the border into Lesotho, the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) tried to disperse the crowd accusing them of protesting illegally as they did not have any permit.
Speaking on behalf of the picketers, Solong Senohe, general secretary of UNITE admitted they had not applied for a permit that allows them to protest.
“We did not apply for the permit because we were never going to be granted one. But we are here today because we want the world to know that our government does not support our workers. Instead, when we fight for our rights against unsatisfactory salaries we are subjected to attack and abuse by the police,” he said.
In a statement released on Tuesday NUMSA called on all organisations, movements, unions and parties to stand in solidarity with the workers in Lesotho.
The textile and apparel industry in Lesotho grew from having just a handful of factories in the 1990s to becoming the largest private sector employer, providing over 40 000 jobs and benefiting around 13 percent of the country’s population according to the World Bank.
Between 2001 and 2004, textile and apparel exports from Lesotho to the United States increased from US$140 million (about M2.1 billion) to $450 million.