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I stand with factory workers



A friend of mine, Daniel Tsikoane, was excited when he found a pair of jeans written “Made in Lesotho” in Johannesburg, South Africa. We had a moment to reflect on the matter of working conditions of a worker who made him look good. Truth be told when we slip into our favourite pair of branded jeans, we hardly ever think about its origin or the impact it must have had on the life of the person who made them. Overconsumption in the developed countries we supply especially the United States is encouraging more and more brands to bring cheaper collections to the market at an accelerated pace. This, in turn, means garment workers, who are typically female, are faced with longer working hours, low pay, verbal abuse and unsafe working conditions. It has been three weeks since factory workers went on strike to protest low pay. The factory workers are demanding that the government must retrospectively gazette a new minimum wage for the previous 2020/21 financial year before gazetting a new one for the current financial year. They want a 20 percent increment for the previous year. I invited young factory workers to a youth programme I produce on 357fm every Wednesday to tell us why they wanted a wage hike. It was an interesting programme getting to know the needs of factory workers. On the eve of my Wednesday programme last week, which also happened to be Heroes Day holiday, the factory workers for the first time began protesting on a holiday and in the evening. I know a lot of my friends on Facebook questioned their timing and the damage on property they caused. I do not agree with the damage caused on property but factory workers had no other option. Governments have tendencies of ignoring lowly paid workers such as factory workers. Factory workers need to do extraordinary things in order to be heard. One single parent who is a factory worker at Thetsane factories, who gets paid M1 900 a month, said she just could not take it anymore. I have decided not to mention her name because that could cost her employment. “The highest wage I ever got was literally M1 900 without overtime,” she said. “I cannot take it anymore. I have to pay rent, buy food, clothing, electricity, pay school fees and transport for my child. I cannot cope. I am struggling in this poverty,” she said. “This job is not worth M1900. I need M3000 now.” Yet she and thousands of workers across the country will have to wait. The government Covid-19 stimulus package did not include a measure to raise the minimum wage for factory workers. Some of my friends argue that the government has a whole host of challenges when things like a pandemic hit. A minimum wage for factory workers is the last item on the government’s priorities. They argue that if the minimum wage was to increase, they predict a drop in overall employment. However, they forget that more than 40 000 factory workers would be lifted out of poverty. Others argue that investors will pack and go where labour is cheap. While I agree it is a possibility, it is difficult to offer specifics on what a higher minimum wage might do to employment. For example, if someone who works overtime to complement the minimum wage can make the same amount of money working without overtime, that would be a positive development for that person. Secondly investors will not lose money because they are already spending over M3000 per month on one person because of the overtime done. Oftentimes discussions about how much and how often to raise the minimum wage get positioned in relation to potential harm to business: how much can businesses bear to pay for a month of labour before they are negatively impacted? However, I argue that an increase in the minimum wage can actually be good for business. Low-wage workers who have enough money to meet their household needs, you know, like paying the rent and buying food. These workers tend to spend every extra loti they earn. Pumping that money back into the economy, through consumer spending, fuels growth and increases sales for local businesses. When factory workers get paid Maseru becomes busy, banks, street vendors, mobile network operators, owners of apartments, local supermarkets, taxi owners all make money. It make sense that an increase in their wages would mean a boost to both their individual well-being and that of the business they work for, reducing stress at home and boosting their productivity on the job. An undernourished worker who is worried about how to pay the bills at the end of the month is unlikely to be contributing all he or she could to the overall success of a business. The other argument they make is that the economy is not doing well under Covid-19 pandemic. I will be the first to admit that the Covid-19 pandemic has not only taken away jobs, uprooted homes, led to starvation, especially during the initial phase of the lockdown, but it has destroyed livelihoods of thousands of people. With no job security, workers had been left unpaid, and unheard. However let me also remind you that it was during the Covid-19 pandemic that Parliament passed a law that increased the salaries for MPs: M5 000 petrol allowance and M3000 house allowance. Besides factory workers continue doing overtime opportunities which gives them over M3000 per month. If employers can afford M3000 with overtime included then it means they can pay factory workers M3000 per month as minimum wage. The saying, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” states that something that is good for one should be good for all. Well, recent salary hike for MPs have provided evidence that MPs are flourishing. However, what is good for MPs is not always good for factory workers. Without doubt, Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro believes what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander. Nevertheless I think it is fair enough to say that what is good for the goose, in this case, MPs salary hike, is good for the gander, factory worker minimum wage increase. The Government of Lesotho must release the gazette which will introduce the new minimum wage for factory workers and stop delaying tactics. In their attempt to protest for minimum wage increase two workers have lost their lives and many others were injured. Is Prime Minister Majoro waiting for more to die before agreeing to the minimum wage increase? MPs did not have to protest to get a salary hike. For some reason some animals are more equal than others. But my conscience does not allow me to forget the plight of the poor factory workers. Therefore I stand with factory workers in their struggle for better working conditions and better salary. Ramahooana Matlosa

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