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Factory workers’ strike turns violent

Bereng Mpaki/Marafaele Mohloboli

POLICE had to break up a violent strike by some factory workers who vandalised property at one of the major textile factories in Thetsane, Maseru, on Friday.

The factory workers went on strike to protest the government’s delay in paying them the promised M800 each to cushion them from wage losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who became violent were enraged that some of their colleagues had continued working instead of joining the strike. They tried to force their way into one of the factories to compel those who had not joined the strike to do so.

The strike nonetheless appeared to have had a good response with thousands milling out of their factories after refusing to take their work seats.
Among other things, the workers are unhappy with the government’s delay in paying them the M800 wage subsidy each to cushion them for the loss of earnings during the Covid-19 induced lockdown from 30 March to 5 May 2020.

The workers also want the government to fire Labour and Employment Minister Keketso Rantšo for allegedly shooting down their demands for a 20 percent minimum wage increment.
“She (Ms Rantšo) seems to be friends with the employers and does not care about the welfare of the employees,” said National Clothing and Textile Workers Union (NACTWU) deputy secretary general Tšepang Makakole.

“We have expressed our dissatisfaction over the years but in vain. We would like to see her being reshuffled as she is not serving our interests at all. It’s been ages since we pleaded for a social security scheme but that has not been tabled in parliament by Ms Rantšo. This year she has still not published a new minimum wage gazette as she ought to have done by April,” added Mr Makakole.

The workers had hoped to march from the factories in the Thetsane industrial area to the government offices to present a petition to Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro on Friday.
However, the government directed the labour unions to send one representative each to deliver the petition in line with public health regulations prohibiting large gatherings as part of the fight against Covid-19.

The workers are represented by NACTWU, the United Textile Employees (UNITE), the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA) and Lentsoe la Sechaba.

The ban of their intended march caused tempers to flare and some of the workers ended up taking out their frustrations on their colleagues who had chosen to work instead of joining the protest.

A steel gate at the J&S factory was broken down by angry workers who also smashed windows with stones in a bid to gain entry to force workers who were in the premises to come out.
Shortly afterwards, armed police arrived at the scene and fired rubber bullets to disperse the rowdy crowd.

Some workers sustained minor injuries from being manhandled, kicked and whipped by the police. The Sunday Express observed some police kicking and beating some of the workers who had blockaded the road with stones and poles.

Some of the workers later told this publication that they had resorted to violence as a result of the “betrayal” by their colleagues who refused to down tools.
“We wanted them to come out of their workplaces and join us because we are all facing the same problems,” one worker said.

“(Former Prime Minister Thomas) Thabane gave us the first M800 subsidy last month as he had promised. But the new government is delaying the second payment. We have even heard rumours that we are not going to be paid the subsidy for the remaining two months because some factories have resumed production and so they will pay us.

“That is very cruel because some factories are yet to resume operations and those that have opened are not yet fully operational. That means some workers will not get any salaries while others will not get full pay. That is why we are insisting on being paid the M800 subsidies,” the worker said.

Apart from firing Ms Rantšo, the workers also want the government to publish the 2020/2021 minimum wage gazette.

They want the government to fast track establishment of a social security scheme as well as address the shortage of personnel to deal with labour disputes at the labour courts.

NACTWU’s deputy secretary general Makakole said they were still to deliver their petition to Dr Majoro because they want the workers to be present when they do so.

“We did not go ahead with the plan to hand over the petition on Friday because the workers directed us not to do so in their absence. They (workers) want to be there when the prime minister receives the petition,” Mr Makakole said.

He said workers would return to work on Monday (tomorrow) while the labour unions consulted their legal advisors on the way forward.

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