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Government should have saved Philips

philipsTHE recent closure of Philips Lighting Maseru (PLM) is a very sad development indeed.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this article, knowing that about 320 Basotho are now jobless following PLM’s folding. This comes at a time when Lesotho is busy trying to find ways and means of creating jobs for the multitudes of unemployed. The government will now have to review its target of ensuring 10 000 jobs are created in the 2014/15 fiscal year by a further 320 in light of this setback. I wonder how this will be achieved!

I used to watch with contentment as PLM employees went to work and back every day as I passed by the factory. Most of the workers come from my neighbourhood of Ha Abia. They were fortunate to be employed and looked happy. They were thus able to participate in stokvels (informal moneymaking projects) and some of them were also members of Mpate Sheleng burial schemes.

They had the luxury to borrow money from family and friends knowing they would be able to pay back come month-end. Once upon a time, they were able to take their sick children to the clinic because they could afford to pay the bill. They could also buy gas and pay the rent. They were able to shop for clothing for their families and ensure that everyone got something new to wear during the year.

They bought school uniforms and sent money to their parents in the rural areas. These were young adults, mostly women, looking forward to improving their lot from the proceeds of their job. They, therefore, had a reason to wake up in the morning and run to work, which I am sure they were looking forward to doing each new day.

Life was going well for them although there were other challenges they were probably facing. But now, this flow of money, and the opportunities which came with it, has suddenly ebbed. The workers now have fend for themselves.
Most will now be forced to go back to the days when they woke up in the morning with nothing on their to-do list. For some, basking in the sun might be the only option available.

They will be faced again with the harsh reality of being unemployed and furthermore with the fact that jobs are very hard to find. Some of them will probably be fortunate enough to be absorbed into the Fato-fato programme in the Ministry of Forestry and Land Reclamation. And we all know how this is usually not very helpful particularly if one is a breadwinner in the family. Certainly their financial needs cannot be met if they take that route.
General Manager of the factory Dariusz Cimochowski was quoted in the media having said the closure of the factory was “a result of the rapid evolution currently taking place within the lighting industry and a move towards more controllable, digital lighting technologies”.

Now here is my concern. Did the PLM management engage the relevant government department, concerning their decision to close the factory?
In my view, there should have been some discussion pertaining to whether or not government can assist in keeping PLM afloat. That is why I firmly believe that stakeholders, including government, did not pursue all the avenues to keep PLM operational.
“The plant closure is a market-driven business decision and not a reflection of the capability and professionalism of the team working at Phillips Lighting Maseru,” Cimochowski was quoted as having said.

Does Phillips mean that they have not found viable markets for their products in Lesotho, and all the other Sadc countries? I query this assertion because I know adapting to new technologies usually takes a longer time in African markets, meaning that the continent would still offer a profitable marketplace for numerous products including the lights produced at PLM even if the technology is no longer top of the range.

What saddens me most is that I once saw a Lesotho National Television newscast in which PLM stated that they employ people with disabilities. I, for one, hailed them as a company whose operations uplifted the downtrodden and whose “heart” was in the right place. But alas! The situation has now turned for the worse for them. They will have to find other means of generating income.
Cimochowski further said: “While Phillips remains committed to strengthening its presence on the African continent, the Lesotho factory has increasingly struggled to become a profitable operation, as customers favour newer, more-controllable digital energy-efficient products compared to the conventional Genie lamp.”

If Cimochowski’s claims may be true, why then did Philips not start manufacturing the energy-saving bulbs itself? Phillips is an industrial behemoth and I am sure they have the resources and expertise at their headquarters in Europe to design products which can compete with their rivals.
I am inclined to hold the view that if, indeed, research had been undertaken and new products launched, Philips would still be here. The research would have revealed problem areas in the process, and that would have necessitated re-planning, re-focusing, in consideration of the new envisaged outcome. Why do I have a feeling that it is not because Philips could no longer make profit, but that there might be other issues that have compelled them to pack up and leave?

I and the rest of the nation await the reaction of the Honourable Minister of Trade, Marketing and Co-operatives to this malaise and how he will provide the way forward following the closure of PLM.

The only comfort I have at the moment is that the employees will receive their due terminal benefits without having to find recourse elsewhere. This has been confirmed by the Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Usually we hear of people not getting their benefits because the employers would have fled without giving notice.
So long.

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