Tex­tile firm fires 900 work­ers

Liveli­hoods at stake as Ma­put­soe com­pany dis­misses strik­ing em­ploy­ees

Lesotho Times - - Front Page - Lekhetho Nt­sukun­yane and Mo­hau Ser­abele

MA­PUT­SOE-BASED Ace Ap­parel In­ter­na­tional fired 900 work­ers this week for tak­ing part in an il­le­gal strike.

The work­ers downed tools on 10 Fe­bru­ary fol­low­ing a bloody fight be­tween a line man­ager and a ma­chine op­er­a­tor.

The con­flict re­sulted in the im­me­di­ate res­ig­na­tion of the ma­chine op­er­a­tor in protest af­ter he was is­sued with a warn­ing let­ter by the com­pany. The op­er­a­tor felt he had not been treated fairly by the com­pany as his ad­ver­sary was al­legedly never rep­ri­manded for the clash.

Sources at the cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany told the Le­sotho Times that the man­ager in ques­tion had fallen out with most of the work­ers be­cause of the way he al­legedly ill-treated them. The work­ers, the sources added, had re­peat­edly asked the com­pany to fire the man­ager to no avail.

How­ever, on the day in ques­tion, the man­ager and ma­chine op­er­a­tor are said to have ar­gued over work-re­lated is­sues, re­sult­ing in a fist­fight, the sources added. Af­ter the fight, man­age­ment is said to have is­sued the op­er­a­tor with a warn­ing let­ter, which the sources said an­gered the rest of the work­force.

Ac­cord­ing to the sources, when the op­er­a­tor de­cided to re­sign in protest, al­most half of the com­pany’s es­ti­mated 2000 work­ers downed tools in sol­i­dar­ity.

“The work­ers said they would not end the strike un­til their col­league was back at work. But in­stead of the com­pany back­ing down, it fired the work­ers on Mon­day this week. The com­pany im­me­di­ately hired new work­ers as there are al­ways peo­ple at the gate look­ing for em­ploy­ment,” one of the sources told the Le­sotho Times.

Prom­i­nent trade union­ist, Bahlakoana Le­bakae, of the United Tex­tile Em­ploy­ees (UNITE), con­firmed the jobs car­nage at Ace Ap­parel. Mr Le­bakae added not even the in­ter­ven­tion by UNITE, other tex­tile work­ers’ unions, the Le­sotho Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (LNDC) and Labour Depart­ment this week could re­verse the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to dis­miss the 900 work­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Le­bakae, the man­age­ment an­nounced in Mon­day’s stake­hold­ers’ meet­ing that the work­ers had been fired with ef­fect from Wed­nes­day last week for tak­ing part in an il­le­gal strike.

How­ever, Mr Le­bakae said the work­ers only re­ceived their let­ters of dis­missal on Mon­day this week.

Mr Le­bakae told the Le­sotho Times that the dis­missals were “the most shock­ing I have seen in my many years of ex­pe­ri­ence as a trade union­ist be­cause of the huge num­ber of work­ers in­volved”.

He also said of­fi­cials from UNITE and other trade unions would be vis­it­ing Ace Ap­parel to­day to meet with the fired work­ers and pre­pare a case against their “un­fair” dis­missal. The unions in­tend to re­port the case to the Di­rec­torate on Dis­pute Preven­tion and Res­o­lu­tion (DDPR), ac­cord­ing to Mr Le­bakae.

“We are chal­leng­ing that dis­missal. It is un­fair for the work­ers to be dis­missed just like that. The rea­son why those work­ers went on strike was be­cause they felt the man­age­ment was dis­crim­i­na­tory in deal­ing with the fight be­tween the line man­ager and ma­chine op­er­a­tor,” Mr Le­bakae said.

“The Labour Code re­quires that where work­ers of the same com­pany have en­gaged in a phys­i­cal fight re­gard­less of whether the con­fronta­tion took place within the firm or out­side, once that comes to man­age­ment’s at­ten­tion, they should sus­pend both work­ers with im­me­di­ate ef­fect and con­duct a hear­ing. We have also learnt that the work­ers were dis­missed with­out dis­ci­plinary hear­ings as re­quired by the law.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Le­bakae, the fight could have been avoided had man­age­ment taken time to en­gage the work­ers on their griev­ances.

“From what I have gath­ered, it ap­pears the op­er­a­tor met with the line man­ager who was in the com­pany of an­other su­per­vi­sor. This was af­ter the ini­tial con­fronta­tion which had prompted the op­er­a­tor’s res­ig­na­tion.

“They met out­side the com­pany’s premises, and started fight­ing again. I am told the su­per­vi­sor helped his col­league to over­power the op­er­a­tor and the line man­ager used a pair of scis­sors to re­peat­edly stab the op­er­a­tor,” Mr Le­bakae said.

He added an as­sault case was opened with the Ma­put­soe po­lice by the op­er­a­tor, but the Le­sotho Times could not im­me­di­ately ver­ify Mr Le­bakae’s state­ment.

“Af­ter this lat­est fight, the sit­u­a­tion be­came worse as the work­ers vowed to con­tinue with their strike, say­ing they would only re­turn to work af­ter the line man­ager had been fired,” Mr Le­bakae said.

“In fact, the bad blood be­tween the work- ers and the line man­ager goes a long way. In 2014, the work­ers em­barked on an­other strike where they wanted the man­age­ment to fire the line man­ager they ac­cused of abus­ing them. How­ever, the work­ers’ re­quest was not suc­cess­ful, and the bad blood con­tin­ued un­til the fight on 10 Fe­bru­ary.”

When the Le­sotho Times crew vis­ited the fac­tory yes­ter­day af­ter­noon, nei­ther the line man­ager nor ma­chine op­er­a­tor could be lo­cated for in­ter­views. How­ever, some of the fired work­ers were milling out­side the com­pany which is said to em­ploy about 2000 peo­ple, most of them women.

It was an at­mos­phere of ut­ter help­less­ness and de­spair as the work­ers said their dis­missal was un­just since some of them had worked for the com­pany for more than 10 years. The com­pany is said to be owned by South Africans, but the Le­sotho Times could also not im­me­di­ately con­firm this in­for­ma­tion.

One of the dis­missed work­ers, ’Mate­bello Mo­hapi, who is a sin­gle mother of three, yes­ter­day told the Le­sotho Times: “I have worked for this fac­tory for nearly nine years and they can’t just fire me for no ap­par­ent rea­son.

“I feel this is un­fair be­cause I was not given a hear­ing.

“In fact, all the fired work­ers were given let­ters invit­ing them to a dis­ci­plinary hear­ing which was to be held on 15 Fe­bru­ary. “But when we got there, there was noth­ing like that. The man­age­ment kept us wait­ing all day and no­body was there to hear our side of the story.”

Ac­cord­ing to her let­ter, the hear­ing was sup­posed to com­mence at 8am. The let­ter fur­ther states fail­ure to at­tend the hear­ing would not in­val­i­date the pro­ceed­ings, “ex­cept where a valid rea­son is ad­vanced”.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Ms Mo­hapi, none of the “900 or more” work­ers were af­forded the hear­ing.

“We have been com­ing here to the fac­tory gate hop­ing that we will be called for the hear­ing but noth­ing has hap­pened,” she said.

“But on Mon­day, we were shocked to be given let­ters of dis­missal. The let­ters were dated 16 Fe­bru­ary, and we were all stunned by the turn of events.”

The Le­sotho Times is in pos­ses­sion of a copy of the dis­missal let­ters, which partly reads: “This let­ter serves to in­form you that the man­age­ment has de­cided to ter­mi­nate your em­ploy­ment con­tract for the fol­low­ing rea­sons:

“Un­law­ful work stop­page (In that on or about the 10th Fe­bru­ary 2016, you un­law­fully stopped work­ing de­spite warn­ings be­ing is­sued to you by the man­age­ment, thus caus­ing loss to the com­pany); the man­age­ment de­cided to con­tinue with the hear­ings as you re­fused to par­tic­i­pate {sic}; you were singing at the gate try­ing to frus­trate the due process of the hear­ing thus de­nied your­self the op­por­tu­nity to be heard. The com­pany does not have lo­cal reme­dies for you to ex­haust.”

The Le­sotho Times was re­fused en­try onto the fac­tory premises to meet with the man­age­ment on the dis­missals. A se­cu­rity guard on duty said the crew should call the of­fice to­day.

At­tempts to get the man­age­ment’s side of the story by tele­phone also failed as a woman who took the call told the reporter to “call to­mor­row when the right boss to talk to you is here”.

Mean­while, some of the fired, long-serv­ing work­ers said they were not happy with the ter­mi­nal ben­e­fits they were given by the com­pany fol­low­ing their dis­missal.

One such dis­grun­tled “vic­tim” was Ester Mokoena, who told the Le­sotho Times she started work­ing at Ace Ap­parel in 2006 but was given “only M196 as ter­mi­nal ben­e­fits”.

Ms Mokoena showed the Le­sotho Times her payslip which con­firmed the pay­out.

“I am deeply sad­dened. I can­not work for th­ese peo­ple for so long and get this lit­tle amount,” Ms Mokoena said.

“I feel frus­trated. How am I go­ing to send my daugh­ter to school or buy food for the fam­ily when I am no longer em­ployed? The Labour Depart­ment should in­ter­vene in this mat­ter and save us from star­va­tion and ex­ploita­tion,” she said.

An­other fired worker, ’ Ma­tokelo Leuta, said she was only given M533 in ter­mi­nal ben­e­fits af­ter serv­ing the com­pany “for many years”.

Ms Leuta said she was not sure “what to do and where to go”.

She added: “I want to go and look for em­ploy­ment at an­other fac­tory but there is no guar­an­tee that I will get the job be­cause there are so many of us look­ing for jobs now af­ter this dis­missal.”

Ace Ap­parel is an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing brand, and es­tab­lished its Ma­put­soe branch in 2005.

The com­pany pro­duces clothes rang­ing from jeans to shirts for the ex­port mar­ket.

We are chal­leng­ing that dis­missal. It is un­fair for the work­ers to be dis­missed just like that. The rea­son why those work­ers went on strike was be­cause they felt the man­age­ment was dis­crim­i­na­tory in deal­ing with the fight be­tween the line man­ager and ma­chine op­er­a­tor

some of the dis­missed Ace Ap­parel work­ers at the com­pany’s gate yes­ter­day.

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