MASERU – Several former employees of a cannabis farm, Hemp Africa, at Ha Souru, Berea, have accused the company of fostering systematic sexual harassment.
Public Eye can name Khothalang Raletooane and Mochesane Letšoala as representing a number of the company’s employees who have come forth, though opting for anonymity, to tell the stories of the goings-on behind the company walls – stories of sexual pestering and exploitation perpetrated by senior management.
The former workers narrate various instances that disgraced them on company premises, in which some were sexually harassed while some were demoted when they rejected their bosses’ sexual advances; they claim those who accepted the advances were rewarded with top positions in the company.
While she says she is still reeling from her unexplained retrenchment from Hemp Africa, Raletooane says she was initially handed a letter of termination of her contract, which was later changed to retrenchment.
She says when she and other staffers who were slapped with similar letters asked for their full benefits of their contracts that were supposed to have ended in January of this year but were cut short in August of 2021, they were told off.
Raletooane held the position of supervisor at Hemp Africa, and says she was demoted from this position after one of her employers, known to her only as Mathews, approached her one Friday afternoon demanding sex.
Mathews promised to take her on an outing to Molimo Nthuse Lodge for a weekend away from the other employees.
She says she rejected the sexual advance and offer for a weekend out, and to her shock the following Monday she was served with a letter of demotion from her position of supervisor and she claims from that day “my work days were hell-on-earth.”
“I have been a victim of sexual harassment in that company in different ways from my seniors, but what hurt me the most was that when this white boy who was about 16 years of age came and wanted sex with me nothing was done about it, and I became the victim as I was demoted.
“This white boy was part of the employer’s family.
And sadly this was a norm in the company because my colleagues then told me that my position was previously occupied by a Mosotho lady who had accepted to have sex with the white men,” continues Raletooane.
The company uses manipulation and there are just lies in that company to hide the employers’ shameful sexual conduct towards employees, she adds.
“While we were still there they hired someone who was said to be the head of security but was later introduced as the farm manager… and his name is Petje. The man would caress my waist and bums without my consent until one day I stood up to him and told him to stop. Most women there never reported these cases because we feared for our jobs,” Raletooane says, narrating her ordeal.
She went on to say they were stripped of their clothes, had their bras unfastened and had to lower their panties for strip searches at security points. She says there was no point for this because there were security cameras in place yet these were never checked.
The employees say another oddity in their employment is that nobody ever addressed their questions pertaining to their retrenchment except for the new farm manager, Petje, and they were surprised further to learn that after their departure Hemp Africa granted new annual contracts to the temporary employees with whom they were working.
Another employee told this publication that while she never saw an incident of inappropriate sexual behavior at the farm, stories would do the rounds at lunch breaks from other women who slept with the white bosses or tales of the farm manager spanking women.
Another former employee, Letšoala, said he can certainly testify to the farm manager’s “disgraceful behaviour while at assembly, telling us that we arrived there poor and that he was the keeper of our jobs; that we would leave when he wished as he was the one deciding who stays by abiding to given orders.”
Letšoala recalls, “I remember a particular issue of dead seedlings in the greenhouse; two girls were found responsible for the loss and Petje later bragged that he has taken two sluts out of the greenhouse and that seedlings will never die again. I have heard while there that women were offered positions in exchange for sex at work.”
He indicated that they were never able to relay some of these claims they make because Petje was given all the power over them, and that even the letters of their retrenchment were from him.
“We never received all of our money from the company; we only got severance pays although our contracts were to end in January this year.”
Public Eye located one other female who requested to speak on condition of anonymity, and she confirmed the workers were forced to undress for strip searches.
“I asked the head of security why they are undressing me and he said it was procedure because we steal the company’s products. I told him that this was sexual harassment even if we were searched by other women because lately there are same sex relationships and I felt humiliated. But he told me there is nowhere I can get help as our employers are friends with politicians in this country.
“These people treated us badly; we would be made to stand in the sun as a form of punishment…and I remember one day that there was a pregnant woman among those being punished,” she recalls.
“Some of them don’t even have proper documents to be working in this country.”
In a separate interview and in his defense, the former head of security, who wished not to be mentioned by name in this report rubbished all the sexual harassment claims alleged to have taken place under his watch during his tenure at Hemp Africa.
The former head of security said, “all these claims of the farm manager sexually touching women without their consent are lies from angry ex-employees that are fighting the company through lies. I worked in that company defending these workers from these white people.
“I was disgracefully dismissed for defending these Basotho employees and because I was against the illegal acts of those white people that run this firm, who would sometimes transport medicine illegally through the Mohokare River when the borders were not operational during lockdowns…so it breaks my heart when things like these are said when I know the sacrifices I made.”
The sexual harassment allegations and other alleged breaches of the Labour Code and employment contracts, according to the employees, were never reported to the police or the Department of Labour – except for cases of theft which were reported to the police.
Upon inquiry from the Department of Labour on the alleged transgressions at Hemp Africa the Commissioner of Labour, ’Mamohale Matsoso, this paper learned that the department has played along with the company’s mischief because of officials’ delinquency.
“When holding interviews, it seems not every employee was interviewed but were presented with the same faces of the bosses; and no official in the department has ever questioned that,” she told this reporter.
The commissioner, however, said she had not received any reports concerning Hemp Africa, even though she promised to look into the matter; promising disciplinary measures against those defeating the ends of justice. She further promised protection for those that may come forth with further details as their law protects informants.
Similarly, Hemp Africa CEO, Mark Palestine, said in a telephone interview from the United States of America that he is not aware of the listed allegations as nothing was ever reported to him. He said as a company they do not condone abuse of any kind, sexual or otherwise.
“I was in the company premises in October before I came to the US, and I gathered all the employees trying to resolve some of the complaints, but I never got any reports whatsoever regarding those of unfair dismissal and sexual offences.
“Despite that, I will be back in Lesotho and I promise to get to the root of these allegations and whoever will be found wanting I will report to the police. As for those that cry foul over their dismissal I will investigate further and if it’s not about them stealing from the company I will reinstate the victims,” Palestine said.