‘Unity is workers’ strength’
WORKERS’ Day commemorations were held in different parts of the country on Monday by various trade unions under the theme “50 years of work conservation and workers’ rights”.
However, divisions among the various trade unions were evident during the celebrations, with the feuding groupings holding separate events.
Labour and Employment Minister Tšoeu Mahlakeng speaks to Lesotho Times ( LT) reporter ’Marafaele Mohloboli on his concerns over the divisions among the unions and the importance of working as a united front. He also touches on plans in the pipeline to improve the plight of workers in Lesotho.
LT: You have made numerous pleas for workers to unite. Why is workers’ unity so important to you?
TM: It is in our nature as Basotho to work as a team. It is also a well-known fact that if we all stand together as one, we shall win in the end through concerted efforts to tackle our challenges. The more our trade unions join forces, the more their voices will be amplified.
LT: Lesotho will be celebrating 50 years of independence in October, yet it is still grappling with a high unemployment rate, meagre wages and poor working conditions. Why did you choose such a theme?
TM: This theme is very relevant because Lesotho will be celebrating its 50th independence anniversary, and it simply gives us an opportunity to introspect on how much progress we have made. It also allows us to see the targets we have missed in ensuring the conservation of jobs and raising awareness on workers’ rights.
LT: Can you give us a background of trade unions in Lesotho and their role in the workforce.
TM: The first workers federation was established in 1964, just two years before Lesotho gained its independence. It was called Basutoland Federation of Labour and got its affiliation membership under the International Labour Organisation in 1979.
In 1983, it was transformed into the Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) and fought for workers’ rights under undemocratic regimes.
LT: What has the government done to ensure that workers’ rights are respected?
TM: So far, we have succeeded in passing such laws as the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Law of 1964, the Employment Act of 1967, Wages Regulations Order of 1975, Workman’s Compensation Act of 1977, Wages and Conditions of Employment Order of 1978 and Labour Code Act of 1992 as amended.
LT: Apart from these laws, what are the other notable achievements?
TM: We have managed to do away with the powers employers had of dismissing an employee summarily without a fair hearing. Employers are now bound by the law to give valid reasons of dismissal before doing so.
In 1994, the ministry launched the Labour Court. In the past, all work-related disputes were taken to magistrates’ courts.
We have managed to secure the workers’ salary structure clearly defined working hours, payment of overtime, public holidays and lunch hours which should be respected by employers.
We now have the Directorate of Disputes Prevention and Resolutions-(ddpr) to deal with employer/employee disputes and it is doing fairly well.
LT: How do you keep employers and employees updated on issues that affect them?
TM: For the first time ever, the Ministry of Labour and Employment held its first annual general meeting in a bid to share information on the services we provide to the public from all the ministerial departments.
LT: We have learnt that your ministry is working towards enacting reforms to better the plight of workers. How far are you with the process, and is there a time frame for the completion of the exercise?
TM: This is a work in progress, and we are on track with the deadline being September 2016. We are hopeful that we will meet the deadline and deliver.
LT: Tell us more about the objectives of the reforms and what they entail.
TM: They are solely meant to better the general working conditions of our people. Through consultations, an agreement has been reached between the government, employers and employees that these reforms should include the establishment of bargaining councils.
Last year, we went to South Africa for a joint study with employers and employees to see how best we can formulate these bargaining councils as it is done in that country. We believe this is a step in the right direction.
LT: What lessons were learnt?
TM: We learnt a lot, such as the fact that their bargaining councils have a fully-fledged secretariat and are wholly run and managed by the employers and employees.
LT: Do you think this is implementable in Lesotho given the divisions within the trade unions?
TM: Yes, they can be implemented but it is certainly no walk in the park. It is going to require courage given that our trade unions have been divided over the years and still are.
LT: What is the way forward?
TM: I earnestly call upon all trade unions, employers and employees to come together and cast their differences aside for the betterment of the workforce.
We can’t be strong if we are divided. United we stand and divided we fall. We are still trudging behind on issues of unity and we still have a long way to go. Our trade unions need to come together to amplify their voice and also need to recruit more members as well as sensitising workers on their rights. LT: How many workers’ organisations are there in Lesotho and what is your take on them?
TM: There are 28 registered workers’ organisations in Lesotho, and this is quite a large number for such a small country with a high unemployment rate.
Between 2010 and 2011, Lesotho had a workforce of 781 857. Five of these organisations cater for the textile factory workers whose total number is estimated at 40 000. Only 12 000 of these workers are members of textile unions.
This simply means the divisions within the unions are doing them more harm than good and driving the wedge wider between the workers.
LT: Workers ought to have been given an increment of their salaries effective from 1 April 2016, but there is still no change. And the government only approved an eight percent increment on the recommended 10 percent by the Salaries Advisory Board. What caused this delay and why did you change from the 10 percent?
TM: This takes us back to the divisions within the unions themselves and the absence of bargaining councils which I referred to earlier. Divisions mean less power. In as much as one would have liked and wished, the trade unions themselves were divided over the same issue of salaries.
Their voices were weakened by their differences. If only they can cast their political differences aside, they would achieve their objectives.
As for the delay, it was caused by the format in which the gazette was couched and the consultative process. It is very detailed and has designated workers according to their jobs.
This took us more time than we anticipated. However, the eight percent is effective from 1 April 2016 notwithstanding the delay in publishing the gazette.
LT: Lesotho seems to be losing its battle against HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. What is your ministry doing to redress this sad reality?
TM: The fight against the HIV/AIDS scourge requires concerted efforts, and we call on all employees to put in place strategies and policies to give support to those who are already infected.
We are all affected in one way or the other, so let’s unite and fight HIV/AIDS as well as other chronic diseases.
LT: What is your ministry doing to address the challenge of unemployment, especially among the youth?
TM: We have already embarked on a Labour Migration policy which means that Basotho can now work in other countries provided they have the skills and expertise. Working in conjunction with the Ministry of Home Affairs, we are assisting Basotho to legally work in South Africa under the Lesotho Special Permit dispensation.
We would also like to urge the youth to focus more on job creation as unemployment is a global challenge.
LT: What is your message to workers?
TM: Let’s all unite, and together achieve a better Lesotho for all. Unity is power. Together we can achieve more.
Labour and Employment Minister Tšoeu Mahlakeng.