The Ministry of Labour and Employment and South Africa’s Department of Labour last week held a three-day forum in Maseru to implement the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) the two countries signed in December 2013.
The ministry’s Principal Secretary (PS) Advocate Karabo Tlhoeli speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about the event and what it seeks to bring to the two neighbouring countries.
LT: Last week’s forum between Lesotho and South Africa could not have come at a better time for Basotho who are hoping for better relations between the two countries to enable them to seek jobs across the border. Could you please explain what the forum was all about?
Tlhoeli: There was a forum between ourselves and South Africa’s Department of Labour. This forum or meeting was the result of an MoU signed by the government of Lesotho, through the Minister of Labour and Employment, and the government of South Africa, through the Minister of Labour. The MoU is an effort on implementing the Joint Bilateral Cooperation Commission (JBCC) of the Kingdom of Lesotho and Republic of South Africa, which was initiated by then President Thabo Mbeki, signed by him as the head of state of South Africa, and Lesotho’s head of government, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, in 2001.
LT: What exactly does this all mean?
Tlhoeli: The whole concept was to assist Lesotho and take it out of the economic classification of Least Developed Countries. The JBCC is an umbrella cooperation agreement, but to implement it, it has to go two further phases. The phase that comes immediately after this (agreement) is the MoU between ministries. And the third-tier is that of senior officials of government, where the intention was to have South Africa assisting Lesotho across all sectors.
LT: Who took part in the forum?
Tlhoeli: This was a forum of senior government officials working on the modalities of implementing the MoUs signed by the ministers. The last MoU was signed on the 3rd of December 2013. On our behalf, the government of Lesotho, it was signed by former Labour and Employment minister Lebesa Maloi. And for South Africa, it was signed by Minister Mildred Oliphant. So we came up with the implementation plan; how we intend to implement this memorandum on cooperation in the field of labour.
LT: Could you please highlight some of the key issues in this MoU?
Tlhoeli: The cooperation agreement ushers areas of cooperation. And areas of cooperation in this field of labour include dispute resolution and social dialogue mechanisms and institutions. Dispute resolution mechanisms and institutions, to us in the field of labour, mean applying less aggressive and confrontational means to resolve disagreements at the workplace. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasised because if you want to improve investment in any country, you cannot successfully do it without ensuring that labour disputes are resolved amicably and speedily. Labour cases are very expensive compared to all other cases. If the country does not have the capacity to resolve disputes, it cannot be destination for investors because instead of people focusing on productivity; growing the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), things will be stalled where people are stuck in conflict. So we are saying let us cooperate in that area. To be specific, they (South Africa) have the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration), and we have the DDPR (Directorate for Dispute Prevention and Resolution). We are saying, as two countries, let’s cooperate in these fields and assist each other on how we can improve services; the efficiency of dispute resolution institutions; how do we make the DDPR stronger than what it is. That’s the context in which dispute resolution becomes an issue.
LT: Could you please mention a few cases as examples?
Tlhoeli: In some instances, you find that there are awards granted for employees against some employers, but for some reason the employer, instead of complying with the award, decides to leave Lesotho for business in South Africa, or vice-versa. How do we deal with these issues if we don’t cooperate? The police are police in countries they are appointed. A police officer in Lesotho is not a police officer in South Africa. To be able to achieve the ends of justice, as per the arbitration award issue, we need to cooperate. South Africa is a big country with a big economy. The benefit that comes with a big economy is the capacity on all other sectors which affect the economy itself. So it means they have bigger capacity when comes to dispute resolution. Their system is much more efficient than ours. We can learn from them.
LT: What are the other areas of cooperation pertaining to this relationship?
Tlhoeli: The training of arbitrators. True enough, the laws are different. They use the Labour Relations Act; we use the Labour Code Act. But generally, the principles are related and almost the same. In the general scheme of things, we can train our arbitrators together to share experiences. That way, we are improving efficiency. We also have social dialogue mechanisms and institutions. This, to us, is an engagement between government, employers and employees. In the labour field, unlike other spheres of life, we work on a principle of tripartism. This is all about three parties; government, employers and workers. We work with tripartism to achieve policy objectives, even to develop those policies and make laws. Workers and employers participate in the law that governs their affairs. We are true to the principle that says nothing for us without us. That’s what we mean by social dialogue. For instance, in this country, we have four statutory bodies which the principal secretary chairs, and which are made up of employers, workers and government. We have NACOLA (National Advisory Committee on Labour), NACOSH (National Council on Safety and Health), Wages Advisory Board and Industrial Relations Council (IRC). All of them have a core mandate of advising the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment in different areas of their mandate. The Wages Advisory Board has a mandate of fixing the minimum wage; the IRC has the mandate of presiding over the industrial relations system, including determining or advising the Honourable Minister on the terms and conditions of arbitrators of the DDPR. NACOLA advises the Honourable Minister on the law. If we want to pass a new law, that law has to go through NACOLA. NACOSH advises the Honourable Minister, through NACOLA, on issues of occupational safety and health. We are saying, as part of the cooperation agreement, we also assist each other in this regard.
South Africans are now looking into the possibility of introducing a national minimum wage. They don’t have a national minimum wage as yet. They have what they call sectoral bargaining agreements. By default, they become minimum wages per sector. Remember we also have many Basotho working in South Africa. These people get injuries at the workplace. So in that scenario, we need an area of cooperation. What we are talking about here is not necessarily new. What is new is the implementation plan, but the cooperation is already there. What this MoU simply does is basically to formalise the cooperation. We have, among others, agreed on having contact persons to deal with issues of compensation. When our official picks a phone to call on a given case concerning someone whose benefits were not paid in South Africa, the arrangement is that there will be a specific person to address that issue. There is also the issue of social security. This relates to pension and the provident fund. For these benefits to be paid to a Mosotho who has already left South Africa, a follow-up is needed. That follow-up is the responsibility of government. We have such a department in the name of Labour Migration. If there’s no cooperation, the efficiency and effectiveness of the service we provide would be low. This results in people resorting to private tracers who charge exorbitant amounts of money because they operate in syndicates.
These private tracers trace the very social security benefits. These are the people who have become the modern loan-sharks to desperate family members. They charge more than 50 percent of the provident fund in most cases. It is therefore important that as government, we should be efficient in dealing with this issue so that we earn public confidence. This brings portability of social security benefits. Another aspect of the same is where South African employers in Lesotho leave the country without paying Basotho workers. Why should people lose their benefits because of the border? We need this agreement to be able to attend to those matters.
LT: So, generally, what can we expect from the ministry following this meeting?
Tlhoeli: The plan, for now, is to implement the agreement for two years – from now until end of 2017. The plan has an evaluation aspect every six months. It is jointly administered by chief accounting officers from the ministry and Labour Department in South Africa. It has a sub-committee comprised of our officials from both countries; two from Lesotho and two from South Africa and chaired by an ILO (International Labour Organisation) official based in Pretoria. You will understand that ILO is the natural partner in the labour movement. But what you should expect is a much improved Ministry of Labour and Employment; much improved services offered; more programmes to be launched by the ministry as part of this plan, responding to some of the national crises such as high rate of unemployment.