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Factories closed as workers’ riots take toll

’Marafaele Mohloboli

THE country’s textile factories have been closed until Tuesday morning as part of efforts to restore sanity to the sector following days of violent protests by workers.

In a recent statement, Communications minister Thesele Maseribane said the factories would be closed from Thursday 16 August to Tuesday 21 August.

Chief Maseribane said the decision was reached at an emergency meeting on Thursday by the representatives of the industrialists and manufacturers, the trade unions and the cabinet sub-committee responsible for industrialisation.

He said the closure of the factories was the first of efforts to restore stability to the textiles sector which has been marred by violent protests and industrial action since 9 August.

“All parties agreed that the current unrest is counterproductive and must be brought under control as it makes it impossible to initiate serious discussions among parties,” Chief Maseribane said.

“It was therefore agreed to give priority to stabilising the security situation and to follow this step with dialogue about the tripartite social partners, namely the employers, employees and the government.”

The factory workers have been in a belligerent mood since June this year when they first marched in the capital to press the government to legislate a minimum wage of M2000. The average monthly wage is currently M1200 and this is not sustainable especially in the face of increases in Value-Added Tax (VAT), electricity and water tariffs, taxi fares, fuel and prices of other basic goods.

The latest riots and protests follow similar protests two weeks ago in Thetsane and Maputsoe where the workers vandalised private property.

Standard Lesotho Bank in Maputsoe and some Chinese shops were stoned and damaged. In Thetsane, rowdy workers set up street barricades with rocks and burned tyres. They also stoned some Chinese-owned shops near Lifefo playground and attacked police officers with stones.

Some of the residents in Thetsane locked themselves in their houses in fear of the protestors. The workers also disturbed the smooth flow of traffic by blocking the road with rocks and burning tyres.

Last week the workers thought their demands had been met when cabinet resolved to gazette a minimum wage of M2000 which would be backdated to 1 April this year. But their joy was short-lived to Monday when High Court judge Justice Tšeliso Monaphathi issued an interim court order blocking the gazetting of the M2000 minimum wage which had been approved by the cabinet.

Justice Monaphathi granted the order after an urgent application was filed last week by Advocate Tseko Banyane on behalf of the Association of Lesotho Employers (ALE) and the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association (LTEA). The employers had argued that they could not afford the new wages and the government had only effected the increase for “political reasons”.

In Thetsane, the factory workers reacted to the court’s decision to block the wage increments by rioting and barricading roads and thus disturbing the smooth flow of traffic on Tuesday and yesterday.

The workers’ unions also said that factory workers will not go back to work until the gazette on their salaries increment has been published.

Mr May Rathakane, the deputy secretary of the Independent Democratic Unions of Lesotho (IDUL), said the workers had decided not to return to work “because they want the government and the employers to feel a great pinch”.

Last week, the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) legislator Sam Rapapa added his voice to the saga, warning that the government’s decision to increase the minimum wage for factory workers was counter-productive.

Mr Rapapa who is also a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the government decision put the country in serious “trouble” as it was “made on emotions and not on facts” which show that the increment is not economically sustainable.

He said while it was good to increase the workers’ salaries, there was no way the factory owners could afford to pay wage increments in a short space of time and remain viable.

He warned the government to brace for the worst as the unsustainable wage increments could force some factory owners to close shop as was the case some years ago in neighbouring South Africa.

“I can only imagine the costs of running business which include workers’ salaries, cost of the materials, electricity and many others.

“Then there is the 62 percent increment that is going to be paid in arrears. That comes up to almost M25 million. To expect the investors to raise that amount and arrears in five months is not feasible,” Mr Rapapa said.

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