The strike action by almost the entire workforce of Lesotho’s textile and garment sector entered its 25th day on Monday 7 June. Nearly 38 000 of roughly 40 000 workers in this sector – which makes up 20% of the gross domestic product of this tiny southern African landlocked country with a population of a little over two million – have downed tools since 14 May.
Two workers died and several were injured in three separate police actions against the workers since the beginning of this labour action, led by a coalition of trade unions. The strike was launched to protest the government’s failure to review the minimum wage for two consecutive years, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022.
“In terms of our Labour Code Section 52, the wages have to be reviewed annually” to adjust to the prices, said Solong Senohe, the secretary general of the United Textile Employees (Unite). By not fulfilling this obligation, he explained, the government has pushed workers below the poverty line as prices – of even basic food items – have gone up by about 20% over the past year, while wages have remained frozen at $150 per month since 2019.
In 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government refused to notify a renewed minimum wage on the grounds that the companies were not in a position to give higher wages because of the losses incurred as a result of the lockdown.
“But that was not true,” explained Senohe. “During the negotiations, the employers’ associations, which are represented in the Wages Advisory Board, along with the unions, had offered a 6% hike for those workers who had served less than a year, and 5% for those who had completed a year.”
The unions were demanding a higher hike, and no agreement was reached with the employers’ associations. Under such circumstances, he said, the government has a mandate to make a decision that is fair to both parties.
However, instead of finding a midway agreement, the government decided to not gazette any hike at all, and stated the pandemic as the reason, when it had only just begun. Soon after the lockdown level was downsized, the textile and garment workers took to protests, which did not yield any result last year.
In 2021, the negotiations regarding the minimum wage revision began in February. The employers’ associations, which mainly represent the Taiwanese and Chinese companies that dominate the textile and garment sector, offered a 5% increase. The unions however demanded 20%, which, Senohe said, is roughly the rate by which prices of basic commodities have shot up over the course of the past year.
On 1 April, when the new minimum wage was expected to be gazetted, the government for the second consecutive year refused to do so. After further negotiations yielded no resolution, on 3 May, six unions gave a strike notice to the government and the employers’ associations.
The unions had sought permission from the police to hold a rally to submit a petition to the prime minister and labour minister on 14 May, the first day of the strike. Since the permission was denied, the workers gathered outside the gates of companies in the industrial areas of the capital city Maseru and in the town Maputsoe to hold demonstrations. Attacks soon followed by the police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and charged with batons. Two workers were detained but released later the same day.
Several workers injured
Most workers managed to escape with minor injuries that day, Senohe said. However, when the police opened fire again on 17 May, scores were grievously injured. “One worker has lost an eye. Another needed surgery for her injured knee. She remains in hospital to date. One more comrade was hit by a truck while being chased by the police. He died later that day at hospital,” he said.
That day, however, the strike which had begun on a smaller scale a week earlier, became total. “There was by then only one company left whose factory was not shuttered. With that exception, there was a total shutdown of the garment sector, and the government called us for negotiation a day later,” he explained.
A committee of two ministers told the unions that they would update the prime minister about their demands for wage revision for the two years, and notify the hike soon. The prime minister, he said, needs the approval of the Cabinet, which is hard to come by given the state of the coalition government.
On 24 May, the committee raised a new objection on the grounds that last year’s wage cannot be hiked because gazette notifications cannot be published retroactively. When the unions pointed out that it was published retroactively for the wage review in 2017 and again in 2019, the committee maintained that it was because there was an agreement on the wage hike between the employers’ associations and the unions in these two years, unlike in 2020 and 2021.
“We then brought in the papers and showed to them that there was no agreement in 2017 and 2019 either,” he said. At this point, the committee allegedly accepted their argument and “promised that an announcement about the gazette notification will be made tomorrow”.
All hell broke loose the next day, when, instead of making this announcement that tens of thousands of workers were anxiously expecting, the committee announced that the government would invite the International Labour Organization (ILO) to mediate the dispute.
“That is not ILO’s job,” Senohe made clear. And moreover, the workers, who had already faced much violence and had been losing pay since the strike started, perceived this as yet another means to delay the implementation and send workers back to the factories in the meantime.
They then started attacking the textile companies whose interests the government was perceived to be representing. Factories were looted that night. When the police opened fire indiscriminately, one woman was killed that day.
The following day, on 26 May, the government formed a committee of five ministers to replace the earlier one made up of two ministers. This second committee allegedly told the unions that the first one had wronged them and their issue will be resolved. Soon after this meeting, the prime minister announced that the gazette notifying the wage hike would be published by 14 June*.
“But the thing is we no longer trust the government,” said Senohe, pointing to numerous previous betrayals. So despite having to lose pay for every day of the strike, “we will remain on strike until we see the gazette published”.
*The government’s decision to gazette an increase of 16.5%, which would see garment workers effectively earn 14% more, rather than the 20% the striking workers were demanding was made without meeting with the workers’ unions or the board that represents garment industry workers in Lesotho.
This article was first published in Peoples Dispatch.