Unions must unite on wages

LESOTHO’S splintered labour movement is in turmoil once again — this time over how much factory workers should earn per month.

But the dispute is not just about money.

It is about power and influence within the labour movement.

What is clear however is that the discord within the labour movement will not advance the workers’ cause.

Rather it will hold back progress and derail the push to improve conditions of service for factory workers who are among some of the poorest paid in the southern Africa region.

We therefore think it is disgraceful for trade union bosses to involve themselves in petty disputes at the expense of the worker.

Lesotho’s labour unions will not progress unless they speak with one voice.

A divided workers’ movement poses a serious threat to itself and is a disservice to the worker.

As reported in our lead story this week, at the centre of the mortal fight are two veteran trade unionists — Macaefa Billy and Daniel Maraisane.

Maraisane heads the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union (Lecawu) while Billy heads the Factory Workers Union (Fawu).

Fawu wants the monthly minimum wage pushed from the current M763 to M1 300.

The proposal represents a M537 rise on the monthly salaries for factory workers.

On the other hand, Lecawu has proposed a modest wage of M816 a month, up from the current M763.

Lecawu’s proposal represents a M53 raise.

The two unions, we understand, have never seen eye-to-eye on workers’ issues.

This acrimony has its roots in the past after Fawu broke away from Lecawu, taking along a huge chunk of the membership.

The two unions have therefore technically remained in a state of war as they fight for influence and membership.

Instead of fighting a common enemy, which in this instance is capital, we see labour leaders aiming guns at each other at every turn.

The different proposals presented to the Wages Advisory Board last week have clearly brought these sharp differences to the fore.

We think the labour federations can do the worker a lot of good by speaking with a united voice on the matter of wages.

Of course, we also think it is quite awkward for Maraisane and his Lecawu to speak from the side of the employer.

This is probably the first time that a trade unionist has fought his pals because he wanted a smaller wage increase.

We know from experience that the interests of the employer do not always converge with those of the worker.

There is nothing awkward about this state of affairs.

In fact, it is how things should be.

We therefore think there is something odd in Maraisane’s strategy when he fights on behalf of the employer.

On the other hand the problem of poor wages in the factories is a structural problem that saw wages being pegged at ridiculous levels right from the onset.

Workers’ union leaders must therefore not expect to overhaul the dysfunctional wage structure overnight.

The issue of poor salaries within the factories can only be addressed through dialogue with the employer.

The objective is for the employer and workers’ federations to meet each other half-way.

Any other strategy will create industrial disharmony and negatively disrupt production.

This would be the last thing that industry needs at this moment when most factories are struggling to pick themselves up from the devastating effects of the global financial crisis.

So the question is: can factories afford massive wage increments that Fawu has proposed?

Billy must realise that a knee-jerk reaction that seeks to correct a historical wrong is laden with dangers of its own.

He must also remember that a populist stance, while it can win you a few extra votes come election time, cannot form the basis for rational national policies.

He must also realise that unrealistic wage increments could hurt business and drive away foreign investors.

In conclusion, we think trade unionists must strike a healthy balance between the interests of the worker and those of the employer.

They must advocate a decent living wage for the worker while not crippling the very factories that are sustaining them.

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