Factory closure leaves trail of broken lives

factoryBy Limpho Sello

MAFETENG — Communities in Mafeteng are still smarting from a massive downsizing by PNT Textile firm that saw about 3 000 people losing their jobs in 2010.

The factory renowned for producing T-shirts came to an abrupt closure in 2010 when competition got tougher after the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) awarded other developing sub-Saharan African countries an opportunity to export products to Canada and the US free of duty.

This increased competition for Lesotho’s textile sector and business became less profitable as fewer goods were exported and profits sunk.

So bad was the business that the firm management had to make a plea to their landlord, the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), not to charge them rent.

In February 2010 the company could no longer sustain the business.

It closed down and, without warning, all jobs were lost.

Five months later the firm was re-opened under the banner of Lesotho Precious Garments.

Even then only 500 hundred jobs were revived leaving almost 2 500 people unemployed.

Now nearly three years down the line, those who lost their jobs are still struggling to come to terms with their loss.

The few lucky ones to be re-employed are not having it easy either.

The working conditions have changed from bad to worse since the re-opening.

The employees say they have had to put up with inhumane situations.

Moroesi Matsie says the closure of the firm brought misery to their lives as they had children to provide for and had to pay for rented accommodation.

Matsie says it was never easy to take care of two children on her own as an unemployed single mother.

“My children attended school with difficulty,” Matsie says.

Although she was lucky to be one of the few to be re-employed, the job is less secure being heavily dependent on the availability of orders from the market.

If there are no orders, then there is no work for days, sometimes weeks on end.

“Even the fact that we’re are working now does not mean things are normal because when there are no orders we stay home for weeks without getting paid.”

“This job is the same as a ‘piece job’ because it comes and goes,” she says.

On the other hand Puseletso Mokake who is also a mother of two further explained that it’s not easy as they are being overworked and they are not supposed to complain.

She says if they try to complain they are told that if they complain the firm will shut down and they will go back to being unemployed permanently.

“Decisions are even made for us. Here we are instructed without being asked any questions,” Mokake says.

Mokake adds although knock-off time is 5 pm sometimes they are informed just a few minutes before time that they have to stay behind until after six in the evening. Maleshoane Teme the former Human Resources Manager of PNT and the manager of the firm’s sub-contractor, Lesotho Precious Garments, says the shake-up has affected the district’s economy in general because factory employees were major consumers in Mafeteng while some students had to leave school because their parents could no longer pay for their fees.

The firm that used to be PNT is now operating on temporary terms with heavily reduced numbers of workers.

Teme also notes that hostel owners lost business as their hostels were occupied by a large number of workers who worked at the firm.

She says many went back to their original homes leaving the hostels unoccupied and derelict.

Mafeteng Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Commercial Officer, Limpho Maqelepo confirms that the factory’s closure brought about a massive drop in business in Mafeteng.

She reveals that after the factory’s closure they got complaints from the district’s business people that their businesses were badly affected by the factory closure.

“Supermarkets and cafes in the district were affected as the factory workers were the major customers in their businesses,” Maqelepo says.

Teme told the Lesotho Times the closure of PNT was brought about when other countries such as China got the opportunity to be part of Agoa after 2005 when more countries got the duty-free access to the US market.

Unfortunately for Lesotho, some Asian countries have cheaper labour costs therefore, they proved to be better locations for textile business.

“And then competition became very stiff,” Teme says.

She says the drop of the US dollar and transportation became an obstacle as all the trucks stayed in Maseru and had to always drive to Mafeteng for the collection of finished goods

The other problem Teme raised is that although they were nearer to the Vanroyen’s border post the use of the Maseru border post led to the delay of transportation of goods to the buyers.

Teme says as the problems mounted the owner asked for assistance from the government and LNDC.

She says LNDC as the owner of the building where asked by PNT if it was possible to operate for a certain period of time without paying rent because PNT was experiencing financial constraints and could not be in a position to pay rent and pay employees at the same time”.

“They negotiated this because they were hoping if LNDC could allow them to evade paying rent they could keep the employees and avoid shutting down.”

“But there was no support from LNDC.”

When buyers learned that the factory was facing closure they threatened to withdraw orders and this is when they decided to do the work under the sub-contractor Lesotho Precious Garments where they organised workers of the closed company (PNT) to continue with the orders.

Teme adds that as organised PNT workers they were taken  to the sister factory, Lesotho Precious Garments to work on the orders that were left behind by PNT. But unfortunately they were complications with the Taiwanese directors of the firm that led to a strike.

“So that pushed us to come back here but under Precious Garment not PNT and we were taken here under an agreement that were going to be empowered so that we would end up doing it for ourselves in the future.”

She says that has not happened up to this day but there is still hope as their aim again is to save their jobs.

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