‘We are not here to fight employers’
The National Clot Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU)(N was officially launched on SundaySunda with most of members coming from the Factory Workers Union (FAWU). With its slogan, ‘Free at Last’, the union has promise promised “a whole new direction and to treat worke workers’ issues differently from the rest”. NACTWU Secretary General Sam Mokhele speaks wit with Lesotho Times reporter, Lekhetho Ntsuku Ntsukunyane, about this development.
LT: Could you starts by telling us how
and when NAC NACTWU was established?
Mokhele: NA NACTWU applied for registration in N November last year and received a Certificate of Operation on 30 Dece December 2014. Members of NACTWU used to belong to other trade un unions, especially FAWU where I also come from. FAWU didn’t ha handle workers’ issues that well las last year. First, the union withdre withdrew a case that was before the D DDPR (Directorate on Dispute Prevention and Resolution tion) without consulting the wo workers. The case was related to the workers’ salary increment, and its withdrawal did not sit well with the concerned staff. The case, which was filed sometime in June 2014, was withdrawn on 18 August the same year. At the time, I was the deputy secre- tary general of FAWU and handling issues relating to the case. So when the matter was withdrawn, I had to go back to the workers and inform them about this. And by so doing, I was unfortunately suspended by the FAWU leadership that very same month of August. I was being accused of several allegations and this also did not sit well with the workers.
There was also the issue of minimum wage negotiations which—unlike previously where the leaders would receive a mandate from the workers to at least determine the amount to be tabled for negotiation—was handled differently last year. Union leaders, because they are the ones representing the workers in these negotiations, procedurally have to go back to their membership and give them feedback. But this was not the case last year. The union leaders reached an agreement with the employers and other stakeholders on a new minimum wage without the required mandate from the workers. They agreed to increase the salaries by 10 percent, and also that this would be done in two phases, with six percent coming in October last year while the remaining four percent was to be added this month, April 2015.
The workers were not happy with this and during my suspension from FAWU between 18 August 2014 and 9 November 2014, they indicated that they wanted to form a new union. I was still holding meetings with the workers to update them about developments concerning my suspension because they had interest in the matter. I often advised them during those meetings that it was not wise for us to form a new union because already, there are too many trade unions so much that at some point we were looking at how best we could merge them. At that time, I was hoping that perhaps my suspension was not serious enough that the management of FAWU could ultimately decide to kick me out of the union permanently. On 9 November 2014, I was invited for an executive meeting where now I was requested to give my side of the story regarding the charges levelled against me.
LT: What exactly were the charges?
Mokhele: First, I was accused of bringing the union into disrepute; secondly, insubordination for undermining the authority of the secretary general; thirdly, that I was not working well with other staff members; fourthly, that I did not comply with the secretary general’s instructions on a certain day, and the fifth charge was that I had violated Section 12 of the FAWU Constitution, which stipulates the powers of the secretary general. Basically, most of these charges were based on the fact that each time union leaders wanted to make unilateral decisions without the mandate of the workers, I would quickly point out that this was wrong and never complied with such decisions. It was because of this that I was permanently dismissed from FAWU on 9 November 2014.
LT: What was your reaction following the dismissal?
Mokhele: I went back to the workers to inform them about this and they instructed me to form a new union. This was not an instruction or request from a few workers from one company but many from different firms. So on 17 November, I submitted the application for registration. That is why we have NACTWU today.
LT: What are NACTWU’S objectives?
Mokhele: NACTWU’S main objective is to protect, with honesty and dedication, the rights and needs of Lesotho’s textile workers. The objective is to ensure the workers’ employment conditions are improved, and most importantly, that their salaries are increased. We have a minimum wage in the textile sector, but the union can negotiate a top-up for the benefit of its members. It is also our mandate to make the workers understand the country’s Labour Laws, especially those relating to their work environment, and their rights. They should be able to differentiate their rights from those of their employer so that both parties are able to work together without violating each other’s rights.
I first joined LECAWU (Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union) many years ago before FAWU was formed from the same union. I am one of the founder members of FAWU. We are different from all these other unions because what we are basically advocating for is that NACTWU belongs to the workers. Every decision taken should come from the workers, and we are just their servants. Secondly, as servants it is our responsibility to harmonise working relations between the workers and the employer. This is important because where both parties are happy, production will be high, resulting in better salaries and a happy workforce. In such a situation, both parties benefit. We are not here to fight employers. We need them. What we want to emphasise is that the two are social partners and they need each other. They should assist each other on matters concerning their partnership.
LT: There have been concerns from the public and workers themselves that union leaders often receive bribes from employers to make sure they don’t press for a high wage increase. What’s your take on this?
Mokhele: I am a victim of that very concern you have just raised. It is true that in some cases, when we are sitting around a table negotiating, employers would sometimes provide some incentives to union representatives. The employers would have realised that there is pressure from the workers, who would be demanding more and the incentives would be for you, the leaders, to go and calm the situation. Most of the times, I disagreed with my colleagues against this practice and that is one other reason they could not conform to what I believed in, which was being loyal to the workers. I have never been comfortable with such a betrayal of the workers.
LT: The other concern has been that most unions have become politicised and openly support certain parties and end up not fighting for the rights of the workers…
Mokhele: I can certainly tell you that workers who formed NACTWU are actually victims of that very fact, and the reason they formed this union is because they are running away from that situation. Workers would have joined unions in large numbers only to realise that the leadership is now changing and making them platforms for party politics. While this happens, the workers start slowly being dragged into certain political parties which might not even be their chosen ones. A clear example is that of my previous union (FAWU), whose other founder had, at the same time, formed a political party called Lesotho Workers’ Party ( LWP). At times, workers’ issues would be turned political at FAWU because of that situation. Sometimes when people talked about the LWP membership, they referred to FAWU affiliates. When NACTWU was formed, we were seriously instructed by the workers not to drag this union into party politics and we gladly accepted this mandate.
LT: What should the workers expect from NACTWU in terms of salaries and working conditions this year?
Mokhele: Unfortunately, following an agreement reached by unions and stakeholders during last year’s minimum wage negotiations, there won’t be such discussions this year. As I mentioned earlier, those unions made the agreements without the workers’ mandate. The next wage negotiations will only be held early next year. However, as NACTWU, we were not part of that agreement made last year, but we are still going to negotiate with employers in companies where we have over 50 percent membership, as the law dictates, for better salaries.
LT: Your slogan is ‘Free at Last’. What does it imply?
Mokhele: By Free at Last we mean that the workers have finally realised that they were prisoners in unions they previously belonged to because they were always being dictated to. But now, they are beginning to feel free in NACTWU because they own the union in the true sense of the word.
NAUCTWU Secretary General Sam Mokhele.