Saturday, January 22

Woman shot dead in Lesotho as clashes between factory workers and police intensify Garment workers

A woman died after being shot during violent clashes between factory workers and police in Lesotho as unions say they have lost control over angry wage protests.

The demonstrations turned into violence in what is the second week of industrial action, with looting and damage to several companies in the capital, Maseru.

Lesotho’s 50,000 factory workers are demanding a 20% wage increase for the lowest paid employees, who take home the local equivalent of £ 113.73 a month. Employers say they can only afford a 5% increase due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their businesses.

Orders from US customers have fallen while purchasing costs for some of the materials they import have risen, textile companies say.

The strike began two weeks ago and workers have been fighting battles with police and army officials, who have been blocking the protests, who say they “contravene Covid-19 regulations.”

Last week, workers blocked roads with stones, logs, broken streetlights and garbage cans, which the police dispersed with a water cannon.

The protests turned violent after the government announced that it had hired the International Labor Organization (ILO) to mediate the confrontation. Some of the protesters launched a wave of looting, targeting mainly Chinese-owned companies.

Textile workers in a jeans factory
Textile workers in a jeans factory in Lesotho. Many of the factories are Chinese-owned and Chinese companies were the target of the protesters. Photograph: brianafrica / Alamy Stock Photo

Many shops and warehouses were left empty, while some protesters also took gas cylinders on Tuesday night. The looting only ended when armed police and army officers were deployed.

Shots could be heard until early Wednesday morning. During these clashes, a worker, Motselisi Manase, was fatally shot.

Sam Mokhele of the National Garment, Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU) told The Guardian on Thursday: “It is unfortunate that we lost one of our members, Motselisi Manase, who worked in the packaging department of the Nien Hsing textile factory. It is sad that neither the police nor the army, who were present, recognize the tragic death ”.

NACTWU will bear the funeral expenses, he said.

National police spokesman Supt Mpiti Mopeli confirmed the death on Thursday, but said he had no further details.

Last month, three workers were hospitalized after police shot protesters with rubber bullets. In November last year, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sakoane Sakoane, criticized the police for “state-sponsored violence” against civilians in violation of constitutional provisions that guarantee their freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.

It awarded a Mafeteng man, Tšolo Tjela, who was tortured and humiliated by police officers in 2015, the equivalent of £ 20,500 in claims. After the police appealed the ruling, the appeal court changed the award to £ 12,800.

The textile workers accuse the government, which is in charge of mediating between workers and factory owners, as well as setting the minimum wage, of being insincere in their dealings. They say the decision to involve the ILO was never discussed in the unions’ commitments with a ministerial subcommittee created to investigate the matter.

Unions say they are no longer in control of angry workers, who argue that their profits can no longer sustain them as prices for goods have risen dramatically since the first Covid-19 shutdown last year. The price of cooking oil alone has more than doubled.

Moeketsi Majoro in mask reading on A4 paper.
Lesotho Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro asked protesters to return to work ahead of the release of a new salary guide on June 16. Photograph: AP

Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro said Wednesday night that a new salary would be released on June 16 and encouraged the strikers to return to work.

But the unions responded that workers “would stay home until they had a concrete promise that they would receive pay increases” despite the threat that their May wages would be taken away for the days they have been out of work.

According to the unions, 95% of workers are women and low wages exacerbate their vulnerability in a country with a high prevalence of violent crimes against women.

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