Joint army-police operation as strike threatens LHWP
- striking Polihali workers accuse police of intimidation, cocking guns at them
POLICE and the army were recently called in to deal with striking workers at one of the advance infrastructure projects ahead of the construction of the multi-billion Polihali Dam.
The WBHO-LSP Joint Venture, which was awarded a contract for advanced infrastructure construction works, called in the security forces after their workers went on strike to press the consortium to award them massive salary increments.
The striking workers alleged that while the soldiers were very professional in seeking to understand their side of the story, the police harassed and intimidated them by cocking their guns at them and threatening them with disperse them forcefully.
The strike by workers contracted by the WBHO-LSP Joint Venture is the latest in the series of controversies to plague the second phase of the multi-billion Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II).
Besides the workers’ grievances, the bi-national project has also been threatened by host communities who have vowed to disrupt work if the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) does not address their demands for compensation for loss of their land and livelihoods as well as give them first preference when it comes to recruitment to unskilled jobs.
The Polihali Dam is due to be constructed in terms of the bi-national LHWP Phase II. The LHWP is a multi-phased project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. It was established by the 1986 Treaty signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.
The project entails harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams for the mutual benefit of the two countries.
Phase I of the LHWP, consisting of the Katse and Mohale dams, the ‘Muela hydropower station and associated tunnels was completed in 2003 and inaugurated in 2004. Phase II of the LHWP is currently in progress. It consists of two separate but related components: water transfer and hydropower generation.
The bilateral project which is estimated to cost at least M23 billion, is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.
The water transfer component of Phase II comprises an approximately 165m high concrete faced rock fill Dam at Polihali downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu (Orange) Rivers and an approximately 38km long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting the Polihali reservoir to the Katse reservoir.
Other Phase II activities include advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication) and the implementation of environmental and social mitigating measures.
In 2018, the LHDA awarded the WBHO-LSP joint venture a M394 million tender for the construction of advance infrastructure.
The WBHO-LSP joint venture comprises of WBHO, a South Africa and LSP Construction (Pty) Ltd, a Lesotho-registered company.
The advance infrastructure includes earthworks and the creation of platforms for buildings, water and wastewater systems, landfill, roads, drainage, electrical and telecommunications networks.
However, work ground to halt on Wednesday after the workers downed tools to press the joint venture to award them hefty salary increments.
Unskilled labourers currently earn M2300 while skilled workers take home M3600 per month. The skilled and unskilled workers want much more, arguing that they are entitled to M7 000 for unskilled employees and M19 000 for skilled workers as per an “agreement” between the South African and Lesotho governments. The workers however, failed to produce that agreement.
The WBHO-LSP consortium denies that there was ever an agreement binding them to pay employees the said amounts.
It insists that the strike is illegal and has asked the workers to “show cause” why disciplinary action should not be taken against them.
The striking workers accused the consortium of unleashing heavily armed police and soldiers in a desperate bid to stop the strike.
“They (WBHO-LSP) set soldiers and police officers on us,” said the workers’ representative, Hape Lengoasa, in an interview with the Sunday Express on Friday.
“The police were very rude to us. They cocked their big guns and told us they would not hesitate to disperse us. On the other hand, the soldiers were very cooperative and sought our explanation in a professional manner.”
Mr Lengoasa accused the police of conniving with the WBHO-LSP consortium to stop their strike. He said the strike was lawful as it was approved by the workers in a recent poll conducted by the Directorate of Disputes, Prevention and Resolution (DDPR).
“189 employees were in favour of the strike while seven were against it. We therefore decided to go on strike on Wednesday, demanding to be paid in accordance with international standards,” Mr Lengoasa said. He alleged that Lesotho and South Africa signed an agreement stating that LHWP workers must be paid salaries in accordance with international standards. He however, did not produce the agreement.
Despite the consortium’s “show cause” letters to the workers, Mr Lengoasa said they would only report back to work on 13 March- a day after the Labour Court is expected to rule on the legality of the strike.
On his part, Mokhotlong police chief, Superintendent Piti Khutlang, told this publication that the police only intervened to implement the law and not to take sides with any of the warring sides. He said the police and army launched a joint operation to diffuse the strike. He added that the police and the soldiers went to Polihali to reinforce the local Tlokoeng police’s efforts to maintain order.
“Through our intelligence, we picked that workers were on an illegal strike despite lengthy talks with their (Construction, Mining and Quarrying- CMQ) union bosses over the matter,” Supt Khutlang said.
Upon arrival at the Polihali scene of the strike, Supt Khutlang said the police read a 3rd March court order declaring the strike illegal and (CMQ official) Mr Robert Mokhahlane responded by saying the order was not binding.
“He then disappeared from the scene and I instructed the police to arrest him. He was arrested in Peka and brought to Mokhotlong to face the charges of violating Meetings and Proceedings Act,” Supt Khutlang said.
On his part, LSP Human Resources Manager Thapelo Mateisi accused the CMQ union of misleading the workers to make the huge salary demands. He advised workers to call off their illegal strike and return to work.
He said negotiations for salary increments began in November last year when workers first went on strike.
“They are demanding salary increments and they want M7 000 per month for unskilled workers and M19 000 per month for skilled labourers. It is our belief that the CMQ is misleading workers.
“We successfully got a Labour Court order on 3 March declaring the strike is illegal. The unlawful strike is hitting the company had. It has caused a huge financial loss. There will also be delays in completing the work and this will attract penalties on our part as per the contract (with the LHDA),” Mr Mateisi said.
He said his company had advised CMQ and the workers to wait until after the government had gazetted the 2020/21 minimum wage structure for workers in the private sector before negotiating for salary increments.
“On the issue of a transport allowance, we told them that the company is already providing transport for workers and cannot give them transport allowances as demanded,” added Mr Mateisi.
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