MASERU — The government has threatened to withhold salaries for striking National University of Lesotho lecturers (NUL). The government finances all NUL operations including salaries through a subvention fund. This week the Sunday Express (SE) speaks to Lesotho Teachers and Researchers Union (Lutaru) president Ramohapi Shale about the strike and how the union will react to the threats. Below are excerpts from the interview.
SE: What is your response to the government’s statement that Lutaru members currently on strike will not be paid?
Shale: I am not aware of that position because it has not been officially communicated to us. We will continue with the strike until our demands are met.
SE: There is information that the government has told the university management that there is no way lecturers are going to get the 25 percent pay increase they want because there is no money.
Shale: The 25 percent increment that we want is not based on affordability. We gave them evidence that we are worth more than that 25 percent and they admitted that indeed they are underpaying us. Since 2005 we have not had a salary increase. We started talking about this issue in 2007. This demand is not based on affordability at all. When you compare our salaries to those paid by the University of Swaziland and the University of Botswana you will realise that we are very much underpaid. Even if you increase our salaries by 25 percent we will still not earn the same as the lecturers in Botswana and Swaziland. But I must also say that we are not dismissing the issue of affordability as irrelevant in this matter. No.
SE: But the university budget has been cut by 30 percent this year. Surely the university must be having financial problems at the moment.
Shale: The management has failed to substantiate the allegation that there is no money to pay that 25 percent increase. You don’t justify issues of money but you substantiate. The government is not giving the university money because there is no accountability. They have not produced audited accounts for years. They are just not accounting for the money they receive from the government. We are saying that those are the issues they should be addressing. They should deal with problems and not the symptoms.
SE: It is interesting that you are comparing yourselves to counterparts in Swaziland and Botswana but are you aware that salaries are generally low in Lesotho. For example, Lesotho’s teachers, doctors and nurses are paid lower than their colleagues in Swaziland and Botswana. It’s the same situation with many other professions in this country.
Shale: I am not aware of the situation with other professions. But having said that I still don’t accept that a group of professionals must be underpaid because other professionals in the country are lowly paid. Lutaru is saying that is bad and it must be corrected. There is nothing in Lesotho to warrant the underpaying of lecturers or any other professionals. Of course Botswana’s economy is way ahead of ours but how about that of Swaziland? There is no reason why workers here should earn less than those in Swaziland.
SE: Lutaru’s other grievance is that the 100 percent rental increase for staff houses is not justified. But even with that increase those rentals are way below what the market is paying for accommodation of the same size and quality.
Shale: Those houses are not part of a commercial arrangement. Those houses are part of the benefits that we get as workers. It’s the same situation in Swaziland and Botswana.
SE: But the management says the lecturers are already getting 10 percent of their salaries as housing allowances. They say even if they increase the rent by 100 percent it will still be below the housing allowances that Lutaru members get.
Shale: That may be true for some lecturers but people don’t earn the same salaries. The vice-chancellor stays in a university house and he does not pay anything. It’s the same situation with the registrar and the bursar. In fact, everybody in the management does not pay rent for their university houses. If they paid rent they would never have increased it by 100 percent. If the idea is to raise money why then are they not paying rent like Lutaru members? It’s a question of some animals being more equal than others.
SE: But that is the reality of this world. Some animals will always be more equal than others. Why does Lutaru have a problem with that?
Shale: What I find difficult to understand is that they increase the rent but they refuse to increase the salaries. Where does the management expect us to get the money to pay the rent? We have to shoulder the burden. They are shifting the problem instead of solving it. If this is a way to raise money then everybody should pay.
SE: You say your salaries have not been increased since 2005. Why did it take you five years before you could go on strike? Could it be the reason your salaries are now much lower than those of your compatriots in Swaziland and Botswana?
Shale: You have to realise that in labour there is something called employer-employee relationship. You don’t just go on strike. We have been talking to the management since 2007. In 2006 there was just no room for negotiations because the vice-chancellor (Professor Mafa Sejanamane) at that time was just antagonistic. When there was room for negotiations in 2007 we tried to engage management. We have gone through a reconciliation process. We have had public protests and more negotiations but nothing has helped. This process started years ago. The strike is a last resort.
SE: Some people in the management say Lutaru is not recognised by the university because its members do not constitute more than 50 percent of the workers at the university as stated by the labour law.
Shale: That is not true. We exceeded that number a long time ago. The management knows that because they have our list. What they are saying is that they cannot recognise us unless in the agreement we waiver our right to strike. They want that waiver to be part of the agreement.
SE: How much does a lecturer at NUL earn? We ask because many people would want to understand why you people are striking in the first place.
Shale: A NUL lecturer earns about M15 000 before tax but it also depends on their level. A lecturer in Swaziland earns M28 000.
SE: Assuming that the management decides to negotiate with Lutaru, what are the key issues that can make or break the negotiations?
Shale: The salary issue is important but the nerve of our case is that the conditions at NUL are just bad. I have to use my personal laptop. Other lecturers have bought their own overhead projectors. There are not enough buildings and sometimes students have to stand outside the classroom because there is just no room for them. The toilets are dirty and there is no water. I have to buy my own books. The conditions are just bad. The main thrust of our work here is research but how do lecturers do that when there is no internet and there are no books? The library is empty. The other issue is that the management transferred our loans to the banks without consulting us. We are not against the transfer but the manner in which it was done. Also we don’t know the contents of the agreement that the management had with the banks.