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Textile workers bear brunt of broken promises


TEXTILE factory workers bask in the sun during a lunch break.
TEXTILE factory workers bask in the sun during a lunch break.

Motsamai Mokotjo and Tšepiso Secker

AMID the relief over the likely renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by the United States Congress for another 10 years, ‘Malehlohonolo Ramarou’s struggle for survival continues.

Ms Ramarou (35) is among the approximately 40 000 Basotho eking out a living in Lesotho’s textile sector which is virtually the country’s biggest employer.

Through AGOA, the textile industry has been sustained by the duty-free export to the US market of around 6 000 products from eligible sub-Saharan African countries including Lesotho.

Had AGOA’s renewal fallen through, the textile industry would have been decimated with some local textile firms having already rationalised operations and retrenched workers fearing the worst.

And much like her fellow textile workers, Ms Ramarou felt a palpable sense of relief on May Day after the Ministry of Labour and Employment Principal Secretary Tahleho Mabetha announced that the US Congress had renewed the facility.

However, the uncertainty over the renewal of AGOA was just the tip of her iceberg of challenges. While she can count herself among the lucky few Basotho to have a job, Ms Ramarou cannot lay claim to being gainfully employed.

Speaking to the Sunday Express this past week, the single mother said life was always a struggle since her earnings could not last her through the month.

“Earning a measly M1 097 does not sustain me and my son for a month,” Ms Ramarou said.

“I have to pay M200 for school fees, M160 goes towards rent while the M300 that I allot to groceries barely lasts until the middle of the month.”

Her daily itinerary is gruelling as she has to wake up at 4am every working day to timeously make the daily commute from her dwelling in Upper Thamae to work at TZICC Clothing Manufacturers, located in Maseru’s Thetsane Industrial Area.

The factory manufactures t-shirts among other textile products for export.

Before she goes to work, however, Ms Ramarou also has to ensure her 15-year-old son is ready for class at Maseru Day High School.

Unsurprisingly, the hectic work schedule takes its toll on her body, resulting in bouts of illness, something she can ill-afford given her terms of employment.

“As human beings, we are not immune to getting ill, but our employers deduct money from our salaries if we absent ourselves, notwithstanding the fact that one would have produced a note from the doctor,” Ms Ramarou notes pensively.

With the wrath of winter in full swing, she cannot risk walking home and has to dig deep into her already emaciated pocket for the M5 taxi fare.

“Even though I clearly cannot afford the fare, I am afraid of being assaulted or raped if I walk home but the travel costs eat into my already paltry income,” she said.

To supplement her remuneration, Ms Ramarou sometimes joins the overtime shift, which elicits M7 per hour and “a couple of negligible cents”.

This amount is a far cry from the M2 020 minimum wage that textile workers had been promised by government since 2011.

Subsequent protests demanding the delivery of the promise by textile workers unions had been unsuccessful.  Instead, the issue had become fodder for aspirants to political office which would then take the backburner once election season has passed.

In 2012, an ILO consultant to Lesotho recommended a subsistence wage of M1 415 and a basic needs wage of M2 148. This was after factoring in such factors as the high cost of living faced by ordinary Basotho workers and the challenge for Lesotho’s textile industry to remain competitive in a harsh international environment. The Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) also suggested a minimum wage of M1 396.

Ms Ramarou said she and other factory workers were still waiting for the M2 020 minimum wage politicians had pledged to award them.

“We also heard that there’s a pension fund that is being worked on. Personally, I would not like to work at the factories forever, but having a pension after retirement would help a lot.” ,” she said, as she brusquely returned to work after the end of her lunch break.

Ahead of the snap 28 February 2015 general elections, the Democratic Congress’s (DC) promised in its manifesto to set up a social security fund-contributory pension scheme to assist workers who otherwise would have no savings for retirement.

In response to questions about the progress in setting up the fund, DC spokesperson, Serialong Qoo, referred the Sunday Express to Communications, Science and Technology Minister Khotso Letsatsi.

“Since we are in a coalition government, the minister of Communications is best placed to answer your questions,” Mr Qoo said.

Attempts to get Mr Letsatsi’s comment, however, proved fruitless.

The Coalition Agreement of the parties which make up government, namely the DC, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP), Basotho Congress Party (BCP), National Independent Party (NIP), Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) and Popular Front for Democracy (PFD), promised to tackle the issue of private sector pensions.

Section C14 of the accord entitled “Rights of Workers” states: “The Coalition Government will also commit to a review of the Labour Code.”

Contacted on Tuesday, the national coordinator newly-formed Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho’s – made up of Factory Workers Union, National Union of Textile Workers (NUTEX), Daniel Maraisane said that there was progress with regards to the Social Security Fund.

Mr Maraisane said: “There’s currently a review of the (1992) Labour Code. Most importantly, we recently met the Minister of Labour (Thulo Mahlakeng) and we had discussions on the issue.

“The Labour Code is in the process of getting finished, and is at an advanced stage, we were told that within six months the review would have been completed.”

Contacted for comment, Advocate Mahlakeng’s mobile phone rang unanswered until the time of going to print.

On the subject of compliance in regard to workers’ conditions, Mr Maraisane said since the Decent Work Country Programme, which is also known as Better Work Lesotho was established in 2010 under the jurisdiction of the ILO, there had been a marked improvement in that regard.

He added that workers, shop stewards and employers had undergone training to ensure their working environment was compliant with international standards.

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