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M1, 8 billion road project under threat

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  • as restive workers threaten strike over salary and other grievances

Bereng Mpaki

THE much-delayed M1, 8 billion Ha-Mpiti to Sehlabathebe Road project is under threat from restive workers who are threatening to strike to force their Chinese employer to award them salary increments to match international standards.

The workers also want the contractor, Qingjing Group, to provide them with “decent accommodation” as well as provide them with personal protective clothing (PPE) to prevent them from contracting the deadly Covid-19 disease.

Their grievances are contained in a recent letter to the Roads Directorate which is supervising the project. The project is being implemented under the framework of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

The much-delayed project was one of the infrastructure projects that the Lesotho and Chinese governments agreed on at the FOCAC summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2015. Other FOCAC projects are the Maseru Hospital and Eye Clinic to replace Queen Elizabeth II Hospital and the construction of the Hlotse multi-purpose dam among others.

The Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of China provided a concessional loan of M1, 3 billion to fund the project. Lesotho injected a further M500 million to consolidate the total cost of the road construction.

When complete, the 91 km road will become a 7-meter-wide double-lane road, shortening the driving time from Ha-Mpiti to Sehlabathebe from 4 hours to about 1,5 hours.

Villagers’ transport woes would be solved and tourism in the picturesque area would also be boosted by the construction of the wide-tarred road.

Qingjing Group was contracted for the construction work. But just over a year after construction started, local workers who were engaged by the Chinese firms are up in arms with their employers over what they say are unfair labour practices.

They now want the Roads Directorate to intervene, failing which they will down tools during this month of April.

The workers are represented by the Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers (CMQ) labour union.

In a letter written on their behalf by CMQ General Secretary Robert Mokhahlane and addressed to the Roads Directorate, they want the latter to order Qingjing to increase their salaries which they say are well below international standards.

“We request a review of the workers’ salaries in line with the Multinational Enterprise Declaration,” Mr Mokhahlane states in the letter which is copied to ministries of Labour and Employment; Public Works and the Qacha’s Nek district administrator’s office.

Mr Mokhahlane subsequently told the Sunday Express that the declaration “is an instrument of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which encourages multinational companies working abroad to pay the same salaries as they would pay back home”.

He said unskilled manual workers with at least a year’s experience are paid M2552 per month while those with less than a year’s experience get M2309 in line with Lesotho’s minimum wage. But since Qingjing is an international company from China, the workers want to be paid at least M5 000 each per month as they say this is what the company pays its unskilled workers back home.

Mr Mokhahlane further demanded that the Roads Directorate ensures that “employees get their personal protective clothing which includes overalls, protective boots, freezer suits, helmets, gumboots and others in line with sections 93 and 94 of the Labour Code of 1992”.

The workers also want to be provided with decent accommodation. They claim there is no decent accommodation at their work station thus forcing them to rent in the nearby villages.

“We request you to force the employer to take responsibility for transport for workers from their homes to their workplace. This is in line with Section 150 and 160 of the Labour Code of 1992.

“We also propose that Qingjing should see to it that there is a camp where workers can stay. This is line with Section 115 of the Labour Code which states that workers from other districts must be accommodated by the employer.”

The workers also want their employer to reimburse them after they allegedly used their own money to pay for Covid-19 tests which they periodically have to take before being allowed to work.

The workers are planning to strike soon if Qingjing does not address their grievances with immediate effect.

“We have tried to discuss these issues with the employer but nothing has changed. So, the workers have decided that they will down tools if there is no answer regarding their grievances by the end of the first week of April 2021,” Mr Mokhahlane said.

However, Qingjing General Manager, Zhang Jimbo, dismissed the workers’ claims as “unfounded”.

“Nothing they (workers) say is true. All their complaints are unfounded,” Mr Jimbo said over the weekend. He also invited this publication to the construction site to “see for yourself”.

On her part, the public relations manager of the Roads Directorate, Nosezolo Mpopo, said they had “no business in interfering in matters between the contractor and its workers”.

 

 

 

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