MASERU — For 34-year-old Nthabiseng Lebala, Workers’ Day, which was celebrated on Monday, has lost all meaning.
As workers in Lesotho headed home following feisty celebrations on Monday, Lebala was heading home after yet another hard day’s work.
Instead of joining the day’s celebrations or resting at home, Lebala, a factory worker in the Thetsane Industrial Area, had decided to pitch up for work in a bid to earn a little more to add to her M970 monthly salary.
“I use every opportunity I get to make extra money,” Lebala, a mother of three, says.
“My salary is too little to meet the needs of my family. I have no time to rest. I take every opportunity to work overtime for more money. It is not much but I can manage to get a few things that we need.”
Lebala says it was pointless for her to “waste” her time going to the celebrations where union leaders would lie to her with empty promises.
She says she has been working in the textile factories for over seven years and judging by her previous experiences union leaders make promises they cannot fulfill.
“We have been asking the union representatives to talk to the government to negotiate better salaries for us for a very long time. We make the same plea every year but nothing has changed,” Lebala says.
“Nothing good has come out of our pleas. That’s why I am not affiliated to any union now.”
She says the government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili had given factory owners, who are mostly of Asian origin, a free rein in the textile sector.
This, she says, has led to factory owners paying local workers “starvation wages”, way below the poverty datum line.
Consumer rights groups say a family of five needs M3 000 a month to survive.
But most factory workers earn salaries that are around M850 a month.
Mosisili has since last month stepped up his campaign among factory workers, a key constituency that could tilt the electoral outcome in this month’s May 26 election.
The premier, who heads the newly formed Democratic Congress (DC) party, visited workers in the Maseru West Industrial West Area, Maputsoe, Thetsane promising to improve their working conditions if they voted for his party.
He found few takers.
In fact, Mosisili was heckled with some workers hurling insults at him for daring to solicit their votes when he had allegedly neglected them for the past 15 years.
In Thetsane his supporters were violently attacked by opposition supporters as they gathered for a rally.
At least 10 people were injured in the clashes.
Observers say these incidents highlight the herculean task Mosisili faces in wooing textile workers.
Lebala says the campaign tactics among factory workers smacked of desperation on the part of the premier.
“He only comes to us when we can be of good to his own interests. It’s a shame that he even showed up. He and other politicians have treated us like we did not exist,” she says.
“I’m surprised that Mosisili had the guts to talk to us after ignoring us for so long.”
But it is not just the DC that is trying to woo factory workers.
Other parties such as the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the All Basotho Convention have also promised to address the plight of factory workers if they are voted into power.
Tlholiso Chatsana, also a factory worker, says she is annoyed by political leaders who lie to them to be elected into power.
Chatsana says politicians had not had the guts to address their biggest grievances such as the ill-treatment they suffer at the hands of their employers.
“Now they come to us to ask for our votes. What good do they see in bo-‘matjale now?” she says referring to a demeaning name that they allege Mosisili used to refer to them for wrapping their waists with shawls.
“To Mosisili and other cabinet members we did not exist for the past 15 years. We were like lepers. They could not come close us.
“But now because they are hungry for power they come close to us and make silly promises. They will never get my vote,” Chatsana says.
She says Workers’ Day is meaningless to her and other factory workers.
“We have nothing to celebrate. Our government has left us to suffer at the hands of our employers. We have asked for salary increments for so long but the government has refused to intervene.”
Addressing factory workers last month, Mosisili said his DC government will ensure that workers get a living wage.
He also promised to institute a pension scheme for factory workers.
He said his government would also negotiate a three months fully paid maternity leave for factory workers.
At present factory workers complain that they are being given two or three weeks of maternity leave.
The prime minister did not explain how he would fulfill these promises.
But ’Mapheello Pitso, another factory worker, says she is not convinced by Mosisili’s promises.
“He is not the only one who promises us miracles. Where were they all these years when we asked for their help?”