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Judiciary crisis affects Maputsoe workers

Ntsebeng Motsoeli

THE countrywide go-slow strike action by the magistrates has prevented hundreds of fired Jonsson Manufacturing Pty Ltd workers from challenging their dismissal.

The workers’ representatives say their hands are tied as they cannot proceed even after filing a lawsuit against the company’s management due to the magistrates’ industrial action.

Jonsson Manufacturing, a Maputsoe-based work wear company, fired 700 workers who went on strike on 7 and 8 April 2019 to demand better working conditions.

However, their desperate move to get their employers’ attention backfired when their employer served them with letters of dismissal on the second day of their strike.

The company accused the workers of engaging in the strike despite a court order interdicting the industrial action.

The company’s Managing Director, Anton Barker who signed one of the letters that was seen by this publication, said the workers’ action called for dismissal.

“This letter serves to inform you of the immediate termination of your employment with Jonsson Manufacturing Pty Ltd,” Mr Barker wrote.

“The termination follows your act of engaging in an unlawful strike today the 8th of April 2019. You engaged in the said strike despite the fact that you were informed that you were interdicted from engaging in same by an order of the court. You failed to resume your normal duties despite ultimatums given to you during the said strike. You are expected to return any property of Jonsson that might be in your possession.”

But the workers’ hopes of instant relief were dashed by the ongoing magistrates’ strike which is into its fourth week.

The magistrates are unhappy with the government’s failure to address their long-standing demands for higher salaries and better working conditions. They have asked Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase to urgently convene a constitutional court sitting to adjudicate over what they say is “the unconstitutional scenario” in which they are treated as civil servants in violation of the separation of powers edict between the three arms of government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

They insist that their treatment as civil servants and dependence on the government for salaries and other benefits, albeit elusive ones, is unconstitutional in that it affects the independence of the judiciary.

This is the second time in less than a year that the magistrates have resorted to industrial action to force the government to act on their demands. Last July, a similar country-wide go-slow strike action by the magistrates paralysed the operations of the lower courts.

At the time the magistrates complained about what they said were “our shocking poor salaries and benefits”.

The magistrates further said their low salaries and benefits were “extremely depressing and do not promote the commitment and urge to go the extra mile”.

“Not only are the salaries and benefits completely not befitting of judicial officers, they are also an embarrassment to us. Because of our meagre salaries most of us do not have our own vehicles and we are forced to rely on public transport. This could culminate in deadly consequences (because some criminals who appear before the magistrates use the same public transport).

“Magistrates do more work than the High Court judges yet their salaries are much lower than those of their counterparts. These grievances have been tabled before various authorities including the current administration for more than a decade but have still not been given the attention they deserve.

“In terms of section 118(3) of the constitution…the executive is mandated to assist the courts to maintain their independence, dignity and effectiveness. However, there is very little support we get from government in this regard,” the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) stated in its letter to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

The magistrates’ strike has affected the fired Jonsson workers, with the deputy secretary general of the National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers Union NACTWU, Tšepang Makakole, saying even though they had engaged lawyers to challenge the dismissal, they have not made any progress due to the crisis in the judiciary.

“The matter is with our lawyers but not much has been done. Our lawyers’ hands are tied with the judiciary facing so many challenges. In the meantime, the workers are still stranded and without jobs,” Mr Makakole said.

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