MASERU – As factory workers indefinitely await an answer to their demands, including the need for a six-week maternity leave, the government remains mum, while the women continue to face various forms of workplace abuse. The workers demand that their conditions be aligned with other sectors which currently enjoy the benefit, but government has not moved an inch to address the plea despite a series of mass protest action by the workers.
On Tuesday this week, the workers took to the streets demanding, among others, a 20 percent salary increase for textile employees and 17 percent for other sectors in the fiscal year 2020/21. In their petition to Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane the factory employees further complain of inefficiencies in the courts of law, particularly the Directorate of Disputes Prevention and Resolution (DDPR), the Labour Court as well as the Labour Appeal Court.
The protest was organised by a coalition of trade unions, the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), Unite Textile Employees (UNITE), Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL) together with Lentsoe-la-Sechaba Workers Union, as well as the Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA).
While women who dominate employment in the sector that employs more than 40 000 people are already working under tough conditions on a daily basis, their basic rights do not seem to be a concern to the authorities even during critical moments that could endanger lives, the workers say.
As a result, workers trade unions have called for the Minister of Labour and Employment, Keketso Rantšo, to be removed from office with immediate effect for incompetence and failure to address their grievances.
“We have been fighting this issue for a long time now and no one seems to listen. The authorities only put more focus on money and are not saying anything about health and safety,” an irate worker said during the protest march.
“Unfortunately, health and safety is more important than anything else that we are fighting for. That is why we are now taking this matter more seriously and we will continue fighting until we get what we deserve. We are not any different from other sectors with regard to these issues.
“The infant mortality rate in the sector is also very high for these obvious reasons,” said IDUL deputy general secretary, May Rathakane, in an interview with Public Eye yesterday. “Ninety percent of women in the sector are youth and middle aged groups and these are the people who are expected to have children so they should not be denied an opportunity just because they work in this industry. This discrimination should come to an end and we are going to make sure of that,” Rathakane added.
“The first few days and months of motherhood are fraught with anxiety; babies are so tiny and helpless that parents should worry about their wellbeing and such problems cannot be ignored as babies are delicate,” he said.
Infants have immune systems that are still developing, so even minor illness can lead to serious complications, hence it is important to understand all that can go wrong in these early days, leading to the outcry by the female factory workers for some reprieve during this period.
This because women in the industry, however, do not get the opportunity to spend time with their newborns and normally go back to work still experiencing labour pains. If they fail to abide by the six-week rule they get fired and are forced to raise kids without any income. Rantšo failed to respond to any of the concerns raised by the workers despite her presence to receive the petition.
It was, instead, Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki who received the petition and promised to pass it on to the prime minister as soon as possible. “I understand everything that you are saying and will make sure that the Prime Minister gets this message. You will get your response in due course,” Moleleki said. In August 2019, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) released a damning report on the three garment factories that are owned by the Taiwan-based global jeans manufacturer, Nien Hsing Textle Co, LTD.
The report, released on August 15, 2019, revealed there was systematic sexual abuse of female workers by local and foreign managers at the three factories. The factory managers allegedly coerced women to have sex with them, threatening workers they would lose their jobs if they objected. They did so by conditioning the maintenance of employment contracts and/or provision of more favourable working conditions on a female worker’s willingness to engage in such a relationship.
The factories are in question are C&Y Garments, Nien Hsing International and Global Garments. “These abuses were extensive, affecting many of the women working at the factories. The gender-based violence and harassment identified at these facilities violated workers’ rights under Lesotho’s labour laws, international standards and the codes of conduct of the brands whose products these employees produce,” the report stated.
The vulnerability of female workers at these factories to gender based violence, the report says, was exacerbated by the firm’s suppression of workers’ associational rights, which left employees unable to act collectively to raise concerns about and demand an end to these abuses. To date, roughly seven months’ later, the government through the Ministry of Labour and Employment has not responded to the report.