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Milk theft that turned sour

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MASERU — Anywhere else a litre of fresh milk sells for under M10, but at Fahhida Cash & Carry it cost 31 workers their jobs.

It all started when Fahhida Cash & Carry managing director Kasim Abdullah discovered empty boxes of Longlife milk stockpiled behind the shop’s shelves.

When he asked who had drunk the milk, no one among the employees would either own up or name the culprit.

Fine, Abdullah could have told himself.

He deducted M50 from each of the employees’ salaries.

All hell broke loose.

The workers went on strike.

Abdullah did not panic.

Instead, he fired them all.

It’s been four years since the curious theft of milk at the Maseru wholesaler turned sour for its 31 employees, six of whom have since died.

But they have not given up on making Fahhida Cash & Carry pay for unfair dismissal as ruled by the Labour Court.

The court ordered that the workers be either compensated or reinstated.

The workers opted for compensation.

Each dismissed worker wanted to be paid M13 200, with a senior employee among them getting M15 000.

Fahhida appealed. The matter could not be settled.

However, the dispute took a curious twist last week when the Labour Appeal Court was told Fahhida Cash & Carry had stopped operations in December 2007 — two years after the workers were fired.

And the wholesaler says it is too broke to meet  its former employees’ demands.

The ex-workers want M405 000 in total.

Judge Kananelo Mosito’s biggest quandary now is that the Labour Appeal Court does not have the jurisdiction to verify Fahhida Cash & Carry’s claim that it’s broke.

Only the High Court can handle such cases.

In the Labour Appeal Court, Fahhida’s lawyer Ntjelo Hlalele did not raise the issue of their appeal against the decision of the lower court but brought the judge’s attention to the bankruptcy and closure of the wholesaler.

“I cannot lie before this court my lord — the company is no more,” Hlalele told the court.

“We agree that the dismissal was unfair but the problem is that it is going to be impossible to effect the judgment because Fahhida Cash & Carry has closed and as I stand here today it is no more.”

The ex-workers’ lawyer, Thabo Lerotholi, said Fahhida’s closure and bankruptcy was news to him.

Lerotholi said during negotiations on settlement it was never mentioned that Fahhida Cash & Carry had long closed shop.

“I hear this for the first time in court my lord,” Lerotholi said.

Hlalele told the court that Fahhida Cash & Carry did not have property left.

He said before it closed, the wholesaler sold its building in the Maseru West industrial area to MKM Burial Society which in turn bonded it to Standard Lesotho Bank.

He said at present MKM is unable to pay both Fahhida Cash & Carry and the bank.

Fahhida Cash & Carry also had another building in the Cathedral Area along Kingsway Street in Maseru.

Hlalele said there is a dispute over the building in the High Court between Fahhida and the Maseru City Council.

He said Fahhida Supermarket, which is situated in Seputaneng in Thibella, Maseru, is a different company from Fahhida Cash & Carry.

“Fahhida Supermarket and Fahhida Cash & Carry are not the same thing,” he said.

“They are two companies registered separately.”

But Hlalele had another surprise for the court.

He said Abdullah had become a Good Samaritan in that he wanted to dip into his own pocket to compensate the fired workers.

However, the court could not do anything about Abdullah’s offer because he had not followed the procedure to become one of the parties in the case in his personal capacity.

Mosito said Abdullah should have filed an application seeking to be a party to the case.

Abdullah’s offer was that he would pay each worker M500 a month for a year.

Hlalele said Abdullah was receiving a M10 000 monthly salary from his other businesses.

This would cost Abdullah M186 000, less than half the M405 000 the ex-employees want.

Lerotholi objected saying the court should go on to make a judgment without Abdullah’s application.

He said Abdullah may apply after the judgment.

Hlalele pleaded with the court, saying the issue of Abdullah’s offer should not be taken for granted because it is the only hope that workers will get some compensation.

“My Lord, it is for the benefit of these very workers because Fahhida Cash & Carry is not operating and will not pay them,” he said.

“This is their only hope of getting some money.

“At least each of them will be sure of M500 at the end of each month for a year.”

Mosito is set to deliver judgment tomorrow.

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