Sandstone workers down tools

MASERU — Only 25 lisente.

That is what workers at Lesotho Sandstone Enterprise in Teyateyaneng, about 40km north of Maseru, are earning to produce a single brick.

For cutting a face brick, that price is even lower at eight lisente.

But on Monday, matters came to a head when the workers downed tools in protest over what they said were poor wages and working conditions.

They alleged that the Chinese owners of the business in Berea were forcing them to work “under inhumane conditions”.

Lesotho Sandstone Enterprise specialises in quarrying and cutting stone bricks.

Chief among their grievances was the issue of salaries.

The workers claimed most workers at the company were earning between M400 and M800 a month, money that they said was barely enough to take them to the next pay day.

They said this was in spite of the “terrible working conditions” they had to endure.

“They have never increased our salaries ever since I started working here in 2005.

“We went on strike in 2007 but nothing changed. Instead our employers called the police to throw us out of the premises,” said a female employee who refused to give her name for fear of victimisation.

The workers also told the Lesotho Times that they were being forced to work in a dusty environment without any protective gear.

“The company does not supply us with gumboots, nosebags, gloves and mechanic suits during our work,” said one worker who refused to be named.

He also claimed they were sometimes asked to pay for these essential tools.

The workers’ hopes were raised on Monday when the labour office in Teyateyaneng intervened and proposed basic salaries ranging between M800 and M900 for all employees.

But things came to a head on Tuesday when the employers, who for some time had appeared to agree to the labour department’s recommendation, made a U-turn and rejected the proposal, according to one employee.

By end of business yesterday the workers had not yet resumed work because their employer had still not signed the agreement forms.

“They refused to sign the forms agreeing on the proposed basic salaries.

“Now we do not know what to do next. Now we are scared they are going to deduct our salaries for the three days we have not worked,” another employee said.

“We are made to work like slaves here yet our salaries are too little. We are paid 25 lisente for cutting and refining one 45cm ×14cm stone (about the size of a block brick).

“And for cutting one face brick we get eight lisente,” said another employee who refused to be named.

“We are doing mining here and it is not an easy job. It is also dangerous.”

A worker who only identified herself as Liteboho said she was paid around M2.50 for covering packages of stones after production.

“We are paid M10 for packing and wrapping a pile of about 130 stones. It is a job that needs to be done perfectly in order to avoid breakages.

“That is why we need more than three people for one bundle. But we do not deserve the amount that we are made to share,” she said.

Some said they were made to share as little as M10. This was common in the stone packaging department where a group of at least four people pack finished stones for transportation.

She added: “It is very difficult for us to reach the high targets set by the company because sometimes production is slow.

“Some days we only manage to wrap three or four bundles. That means one person earns less than M10 a day. That is not right. We are working hard and need fair salaries.”

When the Lesotho Times visited the company site on Tuesday workers were milling outside the building.

The manager of the company, Johnson Woo, refused to comment and referred all questions to Thabang Moeketsi, an officer in the Berea labour department.

Attempts to get hold of Moeketsi failed as he was not in the office.

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