A WAR of words has erupted between Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and Labour and Employment Minister Thulo Mahlakeng, with the premier blaming his minister for delaying the approval of the new minimum wage for employees in the country.
The clash comes against the background of election campaigning as the country heads for snap elections next week on 3 June.
The elections were announced in March by King Letsie III in the aftermath of the no confidence vote that was passed that same month by the opposition against the seven parties’ coalition government.
Dr Mosisili is the leader of the Democratic Congress (DC) party while Advocate Mahlakeng is the leader of the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) which is one of the parties in the outgoing coalition government.
Negotiations involving workers, employers and government through the Wages Advisory Board (WAB) in April concluded with the parties agreeing on a seven percent increment for the 2017/18 financial year. This was despite demands by the workers for a 10 percent increment.
However, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has since informed workers’ and employers’ representatives it wants a nine percent increment for the year across the board.
And on Tuesday, Dr Mosisili started a war of words after he used his address to factory workers in Ha Thetsane, Maseru to attack Advocate Mahlakeng of delaying the minimum wage adjustment.
He said the minister caused the delay by seeking to come up with his own figures instead of implementing the figures that had already been agreed.
“The Minister ought to have long ago implemented the salary increment but instead of working hand in hand with the Wages Advisory Board (WAB) on the suggested increment he opted to bring his own figures and this is where the problem started,” Dr Mosisili said.
He however, said they had since addressed the delay and agreed that the increment would be done retrospectively from 1 April.
He reminded the workers that they were the backbone of Lesotho’s economy, adding they had the power to take government to task where it was not delivering on its promises.
However, Advocate Mahlakeng did not take kindly to Dr Mosisili’s accusations and he responded by addressing the same factory workers at the same venue to clear his name.
A visibly irate Advocate Mahlakeng said he had come to “straighten out the contorted information given by the Prime Minister”.
“No one can come and stand here to accuse anyone of failure to handle the wages’ issue as expected. The employees demanded a 10% increment while the employers wanted 7%. All these came in as a recommendation from your representatives and I had to come up with an average figure,” Advocate Mahlakeng said.
He said there had been no delay at all.
“In reviewing the figures on the table between 7% and 10%, both parties are well aware that last year and an 8% increment was made and it wasn’t an issue. But this year 9% is an issue only because we are going to the elections.”
“Now men and women who know that they have strong necks and can give orders from behind the bushes block your issues. Last year civil servants’ wages were increased by 4% and yours as factory workers were increased by 8%, this year the plan was that civil servants’ increment would be 6 % and having been directed to reduce yours to 7%, I found it improper and decided to go by the book, and with powers vested in me to take discretionary powers to do increments, I did so.”
Advocate Mahlakeng said the 9% increment was done in accordance with the law.
Advocate Mahlakeng has since received the support of the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU) whose Secretary-General Sam Mokhele said he had acted in accordance with the law and was “right to have done so”.
“As NACTU we wrote to the Minister and demanded a 10% increment and unfortunately we were not part of the WAB because our union is still new and the board’s tenure runs for five years.
“We were later called in by the Employers Association and told of a bilateral agreement that had been signed by our representatives and it reflected 7% and we declined to sign because we had no such mandate,” Mr Mokhele said.
He however, said the minister used the powers vested in him and they were happy with the 9% he had settled for even though he had not approved their 10% demand.
Mr Mokhele’s sentiments were echoed by the Secretary General of Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), Seabata Likoti who said Dr Mosisili was “misdirecting himself because the Minister of Labour has acted in accordance with Section 51 of the Labour Code Order of 1992, which gives him discretionary powers”.
“It is also very funny to hear the PM making promises on paid maternity leave when that is already in place. Expectant mothers are already getting a six weeks’ paid maternity leave, so this is nothing new. What the PM is saying is just a political statement.”
Mr Likoti said this in response to Dr Mosisili’s to give the factory workers paid maternity leave as he had learnt that Lesotho was one of three countries in the world which were lagging behind in that regard.
“I was very perturbed to recently learn over BBC radio that globally, Lesotho is one of three countries which still do not pay maternity leave to its factory workers. More so because I learnt that most of you are still at an age of child bearing,” Dr Mosisili told the workers.
He promised that upon re-election, he would ensure paid maternity leave became law which every employer would abide by for it could impact negatively on Lesotho at the International Labour Organisation.
Dr Mosisili also used the occasion to urge the workers to vote for his party, saying, “It is time to press forward and go vote for congress”.
He said government was ready to introduce a subsidised provident fund for factory workers.
“This will sustain your livelihoods in the event of job losses and retrenchments while you try and find another job. The government will pay partly towards that, while part of it will be contributed by yourselves.”
He also announced 2 and 3 June as public holidays that would be fully paid.
“This is meant to give all of you a chance to go to your respective voting stations to cast your votes,” he said.