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Two Garment Workers Dead as Wage Protests Intensify

Two people have died and many others injured after Lesotho security forces fired into a crowd of protesting garment workers in the capital of Maseru late last month.

The deaths of Pitso Mothala and Motselisi Ramasa follow weeks of escalating state-sponsored violence against the southern African nation’s 40,000-plus apparel workers, who have been demanding a 20 percent pay rise after the government missed two scheduled incremental minimum-wage increases—for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022—that were scheduled to be implemented on April 1 but have since been postponed indefinitely.

The Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), an affiliate of IndustriALL Global Union, is currently negotiating an end to the national strike, which began May 10, with the Ministry of Labor and Employment. While government ministries have been resistant to overtures so far, trade unions say, this has proved untenable.

“Instead of resolving the dispute by announcing new wages, the government is resorting to the use of excessive force,” Mamakalo Mohapi, president of IDUL and a garment worker at Precious Garments in Maseru, said in a statement. “Two workers have died: one was hit by a truck while the other was shot by the army. Several workers have also been injured and hospitalized.”

Factory owners are also using divide-and-conquer tactics to keep production lines running.“With non-unionized workers being asked to report for work when unionized workers are on strike, the employers are turning workers against each other,” Mohapi said. “Employers are also bribing workers to break the strike.”

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Lesotho’s last wage gazette was published in 2019 and wages for the workers have remained stagnant at a monthly floor wage of 1,696 loti ($124.89)—or well below the living wage of 4,000 loti ($294.55)—since.

“The government must announce the wage increases and be sensitive to the livelihoods of workers who have waited for two years for an increase,” said Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub-Saharan Africa. “The workers’ rights to freedom of association must be respected, and the police must stop using force against the striking workers. We support IDUL’s fight for minimum living wages.”

Lesotho has a long history of human-rights violations against political and labor activists. The latest U.S. State Department human-rights report on Lesotho said that members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and Lesotho Defense Force have committed “numerous” human-rights abuses, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions [and] arbitrary arrest or detention.”

Last month, at least 12 people, including two children aged 7 and 9, were injured at garment-worker demonstrations in Maputsoe and Maseru after police fired at them with rubber bullets, and, in one instance, live rounds. Eight were hospitalized.

“Our garment-worker members, with whom we are already addressing rampant gender-based violence in their factories, want the world to know that their peaceful rallies in support of scheduled wage increases were met with outsize police violence,” May Rathakan, general secretary of the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho, said at the time.

Female garment workers, who make up more than 70 percent of the industry’s workforce, have complained of rampant sexual harassment and abuse, most recently at Hippo Knitting, a Taiwanese-owned facility that manufactures sports bras and yoga leggings for Kate Hudson’s Fabletics athleisure label.

“The company asks women workers to undress during searches when they knock off work and justifies this by saying they suspect that the workers are stealing from the factory,” Mathabiso Moshabe, a shop steward at the factory, told IndustriALL Global Union. “One of the human resources managers teases workers that since they undress for others to take photos; why not undress for body searches. The manager also makes fun of their bodies, mocks how they dress, and the shoes they wear.”

Fabletics has called for an expansion of the so-called Lesotho agreement, which required Nien Hsing Textile Co., a Taiwanese-owned company accused of similar misconduct, to comply with a worker-led program to eliminate sexual harassment and abuse. The agreement also helped establish an independent office with the power to investigate worker complaints and call for the punishment or termination of offenders, which labor advocates hailed as a groundbreaking move.

Lesotho’s apparel sector, which focuses on denim for export, is one of the largest garment manufacturing industries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides duty-free access to the U.S. market.