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The factory worker



By T. S. Mothibi

She travels a road many a queasy male counterparts are afraid of following on a daily basis. From her single room in one of the various hamlets and villages of Maseru the poor garment worker takes the valiant daily pilgrim from her squalid single room malaeneng(low rent tenement) to the factory in Maseru’s Industrial Areas of Ha-Hoohlo and Ha-Thetsane.

She recounts to me her sad tale in an interview, and her peers confirm the perils of the road they have to face in freezing mornings and evenings of this winter.

That they have to live with the constant threat of rape is an ordinary tale, that some of them are murdered and assaulted in the course of these heinous crimes against humanity is common, but their voice as an influential sector of the economy seems to be a concern only their mal-financed and organised trade unions and workers groups seem to care about.

The concerns addressed as to the safety of the women of the cloth and the fabric do not seem to have the effect they rightly should have on the people of this country and the relevant authorities concerned in the government of Lesotho.

The economic living conditions of the factory worker in Lesotho do not seem to be the main concern of the economic planning bodies; diamonds are the main drawcard for these economic planning bodies because they rake in a lot of cash as reflected in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of this country.

But the amount of cash gathered in the form of tax and returns from the garments and textiles industry is significant enough to see this country through each passing year since the industry began in the early 1980’s.

What vexes one as a researcher is why the voice of the workers does not seem to have the necessary impact on government policy to ease the hard lives of these women.

The garments and textiles industry of Lesotho employs more than 40000 citizens of this country, and statistics show that the apparel industry could well be contributing 53 percent in national export margins. But there are questions as to why the factory workers and their welfare are not the main concern of the governments that have been in existence since the introduction of this industrial sector.

The workers basic rights do not seem to be a concern for the authorities for, upon interviewing some of the women (women do form a large percentage of the workforce in this sector), the stories one hears are shocking. One of the women factory workers (identity retained), from the hinterlands of Quthing district told me, “I knew the salary was not good when I joined the workforce, but I thought it would improve with the number of years in employment.

The increase has come, but it barely covers my needs and the needs of the family I left back at home, and many times, I have to borrow from loan sharks to make ends meet. It is a hard life, and sometimes I feel like giving in, but my five children back at home need to go to school, and they need to eat… the working conditions are bad in summer, but they are appalling in winter because the factory floor is not heated.

You cannot imagine the cold when one has to go on the nightshift…” the look in her eyes is one she shares with her fellow sisters and the few males that work in the factories; it is a look of despair, of those that have given in but have nowhere else to work: work is scarce these days, the graduates in their ranks prove this fact.

Employment has become an elusive fish to catch, and those who get it keep it even if treats them as slaves. If you have read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times or Oliver Twist you will know that a factory floor in the 1800’s was not heated, that the workers had to toil for measly pay in the industry that was then in its infancy.

Reading the tales of hardship in the two books and history of the Industrial Revolution is shocking, but if you meet such 19th century tales in the 21st century Lesotho, you begin to question the efficacy of the policies and strategies of the economic planning bodies in government.

That such basic rights as the working conditions and the welfare of the workers do not seem to be a concern in these cold winter days and nights makes one question our humanity as a nation.

Our women are not just women; they are our mothers, our sisters, and the mothers of our children. They deserve the care we grant office workers because like them, the wellbeing of the economy of the state depends on their selfless effort in those harsh factories that are merciless cold rooms in winter and baking ovens in summer.

An economy that does not take care of its human resource cannot rightly be deemed an economy; it is a serfdom that promotes slavery (the salaries are already at slave rates anyway).

One would in the past hear tales of famous brands owning sweatshops in places like Thailand and such other South Eastern Asian countries where minors toiled manufacturing garments and shoes for these famous brands.

One did not know that such practices were present here in this export-focused industrial sector, for most of the goods manufactured in the garment industry are shipped to overseas destinations. And the economy is thus buoyed on the sweat, the blood, and the tears of the women who service the factory floors from early morning only to return to squalid quarters where they sleep on empty stomachs.

Indifferent to their plight in the past, I did not really bother as to the sad truth the women and men in the garment and textiles industrial sector face. They were just Mafirm-line (as they are called in local slang) and that some of them walked more than 20 kilometres on a daily basis to work in inhuman conditions at the various factories of employ was not a matter of concern.

That many of them end up robbed or raped walking to or from work did not matter because I thought the tales were too far and wide to be considered.

That the factories were unsuitable in comparison with the huge amount of clothing they turn out (over 536 million pairs of jeans per annum), that estimates declare that more than 40 percent could be HIV positive, and that they support entire families they have in the villages are facts I did not know until I bothered to meet some of them and to gauge their contribution to the economy.

These people need some authority to really care for their workers rights, because there do not seem to be many workers rights exercised at the present moment. These nights are freezing, but many of them have to go to work on the nightshift in unheated factories; I think this is inhuman.

The economic planning strategies of any one country should take these issues into concern; that is if such an economy wants to keep its human resource base healthy enough to keep the chain of production running smoothly.

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