MAPUTSOE — Reflex Footwear Manufacturers denied its 220 workers their right to vote by forcing them to go to work during local government election on Saturday.
The Maputsoe-based factory was the only one open in the town’s industrial area where more than 30 textile firms employ over 15 000 workers.
There were no workers at the neighbouring Circuit Breaker Industries (Pty) Ltd and LJJ Clothing Manufacturers except the guards while staff at Reflex Footwear Manufacturers were busy with their daily work.
Streets in the Maputsoe industrial area were deserted with no queues of jobseekers at factory gates as usual and the quietness in the firms was evidence that workers had gone home.
The company workers told the Lesotho Times that on the eve of the election supervisors were sent to each one of them to tell them they should report for duty on polling day.
The workers say they could not refuse for fear of losing their jobs.
“We knew that it was election-day and we could successfully argue that we should be released so that we could vote but we also knew that replacing a textile worker is not a hard thing to do,” said a worker who chose to remain anonymous.
“The management often reminds us that there are too many people outside looking for jobs and therefore we are not indispensable,” she said.
“Of course we could ignore the supervisors’ instructions and go to vote but after that who would feed our families when we are dismissed?”
The company’s production manager, George Pillay, said he was not aware that election-day was treated as a national holiday which meant he could have closed the business or made another arrangement for his workers to have a chance to vote.
When asked if he did not think workers had a right to vote he said they came to work on their own freewill.
“They sent their representatives to me and told me that they wanted to come to work,” Pillay said.
“However, there were some who said they wanted to go and vote and we allowed them. Others came on their own accord,” he said.
“It’s them who decided to come to work.”
Workers however said they were never given a chance to say whether they wanted to vote or not.
Under the law, denying workers to go and vote is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment or a fine.
The Independent Electoral Commission’s spokesperson Tuoe Hantši said the punishment for the offender is one year in jail or M1 000 fine.
The Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union (Lecawu) secretary general, ’Matšepo Lehlokoana, said the union is worried that employers tend to ignore workers’ rights.
Lehlokoana said it is infuriating that Lecawu made an effort to educate workers on how to vote only for them to be denied that right.
“We, as Lecawu, regard this as a very serious criminal offence,” Lehlokoana said.
“Had we known on Friday that the employer was planning to force workers to go to work we could have negotiated for them to vote,” she said.
“What else can we do now?”