Polihali labour dispute settled out of court

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Bereng Mpaki

A THREE-months’ long labour dispute between Polihali dam construction workers and their employers has ended after the parties reached an out-of-court settlement earlier this month.

The industrial action, which started on 4 March 2020 was between 189 workers and the WBHO-LSP Construction joint venture. The joint venture is contracted to build advance infrastructure works under the second phase of the Lesotho Highland Water Project (LHWP II).

The WBHO-LSP Construction joint venture was awarded a housing and infrastructure works contract worth M394 million in 2019 by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA).

The LHDA is the implementing authority of the second phase of the LHWP, a multi-phased project to provide water to the Gauteng region of South Africa and to generate hydro-electricity for Lesotho. It was established by the 1986 Treaty signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.

Their scope of work includes earthworks and creation of platforms for buildings, water and wastewater systems, landfill, roads, drainage, electrical and telecommunications networks in the Polihali area.

The resolution of the dispute, which had spilled into the courts of law, has seen the workers returning to work on 15 June. This renders redundant the case where the employer had petitioned the court to declare the workers’ strike action illegal.

Robert Mokhahlane, the secretary general of the Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers Union (CMQ) which represents the workers, said the workers had embarked onto the strike to protest the employer’s alleged failure to prioritise their grievances.

Among the workers’ grievances was the restructuring of salaries to match international standards, and lack of recognition of their unions by the employer.

The salary demands would double their current earnings to a minimum of M4 600 for unskilled labour and M7 200 for skilled labourers.

However, in a major climbdown, the workers have now agreed to a six percent salary increment across the board.

Mr Mokhahlane said this is meant to salvage the works that had stalled for three months. He said the compromise was reached in a meeting initiated by the employer on 6 June.

“We have agreed with the employer to end the strike and the workers have since reported back to work on condition that they will not be victimised for striking,” Mr Mokhahlane said on Tuesday.

“The employer has abandoned his initial plan of dismissing the workers.”

He said workers doing electrical installations and plumbing were among those who resumed work on 15 June 2020.

He however said the parties agreed that workers would gradually resume work given the Coronavirus (Covid-19) safety protocols imposed by the government.

“The six percent salary increment is a compromise since the workers wanted a complete salary restructuring, and this was reached considering the setbacks that each party had endured as a result of the three-months’ standoff.”

The salary structure overhaul has now been suspended “until such a time when the employers’ financial situation has improved”.

Mr Mokhahlane said he was impressed by the “mature and professional manner” in which the employer handled the talks.

“I have been particularly been impressed by the fact that the employer did not fire the striking workers in the end.

“We are also happy that they have finally decided to recognise us as formal workers’ representatives. This is a step in the right direction towards rebuilding cordial working relations between workers and their employer,” Mokhahlane said.

In a statement this week, the WBHO-LSP joint venture said: “Management… decided to re-employ the dismissed workers who were members of the CMQ Trade Union”.

“WBHO-LSP joint venture also adjusted salaries in line with minimum wage recommendation government gazette. The employer will also facilitate a stop order deduction for union membership fees if the employees request for it in writing,” the WBHO-LSP joint venture said.

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