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Lesotho Factory Accused of Firing, Then Rehiring Workers to Dock Benefits

Labor activists have condemned a garment factory in Lesotho in Southern Africa for allegedly firing 253 “striking” workers and then rehiring them with new probationary contracts at significantly lower wages.

Bull Clothing, IndustriALL Global Union claimed, let go of the workers last earlier this month after they gathered to ask why a government payment of 800 Lesotho loti ($46) had been delayed. Workers told the group they believed Bull Clothing deliberately withheld the payment. Bull allegedly accused the workers of wildcat striking—that is, striking spontaneously without the approval of a union—before handing them pink slips.

When the workers asked for the severance packages that Friday, factory management reportedly rehired them with one catch—the workers would be treated as new employees and would therefore lose all their accrued benefits, including their packages, which are tied to wages and years of service. They would also need to go through a three-month trial period at a much lower wage, IndustriAll Global Union said.

Bull Clothing, which produces wholesale workwear, mainly for the South African market, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho, the IndustriALL Global Union affiliate that represents the workers, attempted to negotiate with the company to no avail. It also met with the labor ministry and has escalated the case to the country’s directorate of dispute prevention and resolution, though the tribunal’s heavy backlog means the “situation will not be resolved soon.” Further complicating matters: Bull Clothing’s South African-based owner is unable to travel to Lesotho to participate in mediation efforts because of Covid-19 restrictions.

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Lesotho’s unions say that companies have attempted to fire and rehire workers to reduce severance-package costs since the government introduced a monthly minimum wage of 2,020 Lesotho loti ($117) in 2018.

Sam Mokhele, secretary general of the National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers Union, told local newspaper The Post that the organization is suing Bull Clothing for “tricking 253 Basotho into losing their benefits.”

“They did everything deliberately so that they could rehire the workers on low salaries without paying the benefits,” Mokhele said.

Paule Ndessomin, regional secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, criticized Bull Clothing for playing a “dirty trick on its loyal workforce” by purposefully “provoking” a reaction and then turning around to charge workers of wildcat striking.

“Bull then fired them, stripped them of their benefits and rehired them,” he said. “This is a dishonest maneuver engineered to reduce the company’s liability to its workers. We will not accept this, and we will fight until their benefits are restored.”

The garment industry is Lesotho’s largest formal sector employer, with more than 38,000 people producing 90 million knitwear garments and 26 million pairs of jeans annually. Roughly 85 percent of its exports head to the United States, where they’re snapped up by brands such as Gap, J. C. Penney, Reebok and Walmart.

Three Lesotho garment factories owned by Taiwanese company Nien Hsing Textile Co. entered the spotlight last year after a Worker Rights Consortium report uncovered an alleged system of “gender-based violence and harassment” at the facilities, which made jeans for Levi Strauss and Wrangler owner Kontoor Brands.