MEDICAL cannabis producer, Medigrow Lesotho, has dismissed 32 of its workers after they went on strike over what they describe as unbearable working conditions at the company.
But Medigrow insists the 32 have been fired for engaging in “an illegal protest” and for not conforming to standards required to ensure the company’s output is accepted on the international markets.
The aggrieved workers went on strike on 11 and 12 September 2019 after accusing their employer of not giving them satisfactory responses to their grievances.
Armed police officers had to fire into the air to disperse the workers on the second day of the strike as they pressed to have their grievances heard.
Medigrow Lesotho, which has its production facilities at Marakabei, was in 2016 licensed to cultivate, extract and processes medical cannabis and hemp for medical purposes.
The company has Canadian cannabis giants Supreme Cannabis as one of its major partners. The latter injected 10 million Canadian dollars (about $7, 7 million or M90, 4 million) into the project. Medigrow is now a public company and currently has 340 workers.
Sources at the company said the workers were being made a scapegoat for management’s “bad” decisions.
“Management is under pressure to cut costs. They were spending money recklessly…,” said an employee who refused to be named.
“They seem to have overinvested without first getting their genetics right. Our initial production was not up to scratch and could not be sold to anyone….The money lavished by investors has now run out because it has been spent on too many experiments instead of real stuff…These workers are now the sacrificial lambs for management’s broad agenda to cut costs and save money…They (management) need more money to keep the project alive and it seems investors are no longer forthcoming.”
Secretary general of the Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers Union (CMQ) Robert Mokhahlane said they would not take the dismissals lying down. He complained about what he described as the generally poor working conditions at Medigrow, vowing to have these resolved.
Among the Medigrow workers’ many grievances, was the practice of being forced to shower upon arrival at work before commencing duties even if one had already showered at home. But while that may not be a problem in itself, Mr Mokhahlane said the workers took umbrage with being forced to shower with cold water in Lesotho’s notoriously cold weather and without any privacy as security guards watched them showering. They also did not understand while the showering was reserved for only certain workers while others were exempt. If the argument was that anyone entering the premises must conform to specific cleanliness conditions, then the condition of showering must apply to everyone.
“We see this as a gross violation of basic human rights…,” Mr Mokhahlane said. He said workers were also unhappy that the company had reneged on its obligation to provide sanitary wares to females.
“Female workers are supplied with sanitary wares by the company, but they often run out…You can imagine how uncomfortable it is to work without them.”
Mr Mokhahlane said workers at Medigrow were unhappy with a lot of other issues including unsafe drinking water and the practice of having to surrender their medication upon arrival.
“The workers say that they are being violated as their medical conditions, which are supposed to be confidential, end up being common knowledge because of the practice.”
Mr Mokhahlane said his union was particularly unhappy with the firing of the 32 workers as Medigrow had violated labour laws in the process.
“Following the stay away, the employer gave the workers a warning to return to work or face expulsion saying their protest was illegal. Before the workers could respond, the employer went ahead and announced he had fired them for engaging in an illegal protest….,” he said.
He accused the company of engaging in discriminatory practices as certain workers were being treated differently from others.
Mr Mokhahlane said they have sought the intervention of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and the ministries of Health and Labour and Employment to get rid of unfair labour practices perpetrated by some investors.
“We are not against investors coming to Lesotho but we are against them implementing unfair labour practices that infringe upon the rights of workers.”
On its part, Medigrow Lesotho said the employees’ “issues were expeditiously resolved”.
The company said the dismissal of the 32 workers had been done appropriately and in line with the law.
“Despite the company’s employment conditions being set way above the minimum national labour regulatory requirements it has dedicated staff focused on continuously addressing all staff issues,” Medigrow Lesotho said in a statement to the Sunday Express.
The company said the stringent hygiene measures were necessary for the safety of their unique product to ensure market access.
“The company is producing medicinal cannabis that is to be sold to international markets and pharmaceutical industry and good manufacturing practice (GMP) compliance is a prerequisite to access these markets. The standards require stringent management of inherent risks which, in broad terms, are cross contamination and false labelling.
“The company has therefore installed processes to manage these risks which include showering and training. Inadequate management of the inherent risks will result in Medigrow failing to access the two markets.”
The company also said while its operations were negatively affected by the labour situation over the past few days, operations were now back to normal.