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Resist taking populist route



THE violent protests by factory workers last week were the last thing Lesotho needs if it is to project an image of a stable economy to potential investors.
The workers were incensed after the coalition government led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane allegedly “ignored” their demands for a M2 000 a month minimum wage.
They went on the rampage, burning and looting shops in Maseru and Maputsoe.

Caught between placating an angry workforce and keeping the factories economically viable, the government succumbed to pressure and acceded to the workers’ demands.
It is apparent that the government was in a fix.

Just slightly over a year ago, Thabane and his coalition partners were swept into power on the back of a pledge to improve the welfare of the over 40 000 factory workers.
The government might have felt it had to accede to the workers’ demands to keep this key voting bloc contented or risk antagonising its urban base.
The result is that the government okayed the massive and unprecedented 42 percent salary jump from M1 300 and M2 000 a month, a decision that is now being challenged in the courts.
The decision to award the massive salary increase to factory workers was a political one which comes with its own baggage. The stakes were high and Thabane had to act to placate the angry workers.

However, it must be noted that such a decision could have dire consequences. Some factory owners who spoke to thepost this week say the new salaries are unsustainable and will make them extremely uncompetitive. Some of them are already threatening to close shop.

If that happens, that would be a massive blow to the government which is already battling to provide jobs to hordes of unemployed youths. The key is in keeping the factories open and retain the few jobs that are already available.
No one disputes that factory workers are underpaid. The key lies in striking a balance between the interests of employers and those of workers.
While pursuing that agenda, the coalition government must resist the temptation to go the populist route.

Lesotho needs to keep its factories open at all costs. A decision by factory owners to walk out would be disastrous for Lesotho.
With the government having bowed down to pressure from textile unions, it must now brace itself for a season of more protests from an aggrieved civil service.
The new salaries for factory workers will likely see a ripple effect across the entire civil service with workers screaming for similar increases.

Already teachers are on a “go slow” as they push for a bump on their salaries. There are also grumblings of discontent from the police and other government employees.
The government must therefore brace itself for a winter of discontent. By bowing to the factory workers’ demands, the government might have opened the floodgates to more protests from an angry civil service. How it will placate the civil service will test the government’s commitment to fulfilling its electoral promises while pushing for fiscal discipline.

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