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LHDA sucked into Polihali labour storm

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Workers at the Polihali Dam construction site have implored the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) to urgently intervene in the “atrocious employment conditions”  they endure at the hands of their employers.

In an explosive letter addressed to the Polihali Manager, the workers employed by two of the largest contractors in the ongoing second phase of Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), namely the SUN Joint Venture and Kopano Ke Matla Joint Venture, have hurled a host of hair-raising accusations against their employees.

A multi-phased, multi-billion Maloti project between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa, LHWP comprises water transfer and hydropower generation components with associated ancillary developments. 

The major works of Phase I included the construction of the Katse Dam, the transfer and delivery tunnels, Matsoku Weir, ‘Muela Hydropower Plant and the Mohale Dam. The Phase II water transfer component comprises a dam at Polihali and a gravity tunnel that will connect the reservoir at Polihali with the Katse reservoir.

The further feasibility studies for the hydropower component of Phase II have concluded that conventional hydropower is the more feasible option to meet Lesotho’s energy needs. Three potential sites were identified: two on the Senqu River and a third site at Oxbow on the Malibamatso River. 

Kopano Ke Matla JV, comprising Yellow River Company (China), Sinohydro bureau 3 (China) , and Unik Civil Engineering (South Africa) as main joint venture partners, has been awarded an eye-watering M9. 2 billion tender to construct the Polihali transfer tunnel. 

Its subcontractors include Nthane Brothers (Lesotho), Esor Construction and Mecsa Construction (both from South Africa).

The SUN JV on the other hand, comprising Sinohydro Bureau 8 (China); Sinohydro Bureau 14 (China); Unik Civil Engineering (South Africa) and Nthane Brothers (Lesotho). Subcontractors Melki Civils and Plant Hire (South Africa); MECSA Construction (South Africa); SIGMA Construction (Lesotho) and Kunming Engineering (China), was awarded a similarly massive M7.68 billion tender to construct the Polihali Dam.  

Through their labour representative, Lesotho Workers’ Association (LEWA), the workers have claimed they are served meals that are unfit for human consumption, characterized by often rotten or under-cooked food.

This poses serious health challenges for them, and has already claimed one life among them, the workers have alleged. 

“We are strongly raising this issue to LHDA to take action as a matter of urgency because the lives of Sun JV and Kopano Ke Matla JV employees are at risk. Last year 2023 we had one of our members who passed away after eating (under cooked food) at SUN JV which we suspect has contributed towards his death,” the workers said in the letter dated 16 January.  

They believe that being served unfit meals also violates safety and health protection policies as prescribed in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project’s SHEQ Management Frame clause 8.5.4, but no action has been taken against these companies.

The workers further alleged that their supervisors sexually harass them at work, further violating the safety and health standards. 

“Sexual harassment of employees by a Chinese supervisor. It is a trite law that the employer must respect the employee’s right to dignity, privacy and equity. The law requires the employer to take steps to prevent nonemployees from harassing employees and taking steps against the employer of the perpetrator Labour Code (Code of good practice) 2003 section 55 (1) (ii) and section 56 (2). III. 

“Sometime last year in October 2023 it happened that one of our members (name withheld) who is working as a rigger went to the toilet and upon her arrival at the toilet, one of the Chinese supervisors called her to open the toilet. She asked the Chinese man what he wanted. The response from the Chinese was that he wanted her to go and wash her boxer-shorts and the Chinese took a few minutes before he could close the toilet door. The incident was reported to their supervisors from the health and safety department but no action has been taken against this Chinese man. 

“On 11 January 2024, a similar incident happened again to the same lady. Shortly upon her arrival at the toilet the same Chinese knocked on the door and told her that he is coming to tell her where she is supposed to work. This conduct of the supervisor is not acceptable and is contrary to the provisions of the Labour Code (code of good practice) 2003 and LHWP2 SHEQ Management Framework.”

The workers also claimed they were being exploited through the practice of applying unequal payment standards for employees who are doing the same job in the workplace.

“The records will show that employees who are doing the same Job, same qualifications, and same date of employment are earning different salaries. Other employees are given better PPE than others under the same administration,” the workers said.

“We are aware that the contract for the Polihali transfer tunnel was awarded to the Kopano Ke Matla Joint Venture, comprising Yellow River Company(China), Sinohydro bureau 3 (China), and Unik Civil Engineering (South Africa) as the main joint venture partner. The subcontractors include Nthane brothers of Lesotho, Esor Construction and Mecsa Construction of South Africa. 

“But to our surprise and dismay there are employees who signed a contract with Kopano ke Matla but were told that were employees of Unik Civil Engineering and to prove to that effect even their salaries and rate is lower than other employees within Kopano Ke Matla JV, despite they doing the same job under the same employer. We therefore request LHDA to give us an explanation on whether they are aware of this situation or not?”

“We also need a clarification whether Unik Civil Engineering is a sub contractor under Kopano Ke Matla JV so much that it’s allowed in terms of the law to have its own employees under the same project where it is a party to the main joint venture partnership. We humbly request your good office to facilitate an urgent meeting between all stakeholders to discuss the status of Unik Civil Engineering within JV both KOPANO KE MATLA JV and SUN JV and also regarding its conduct towards these employees as indicated above.” 

Contacted for comment, the two companies referred this publication to the LHDA as their employer. LHDA is the implementing agency for the LWHP on the Lesotho side.

In response to the allegations leveled against its contractors, the LHDA has vowed to get to the bottom of the issues, and take appropriate legal measures where warranted.

“The LHDA received a letter from the Lesotho’s Workers Association dated 16th January, 2024, seeking our intervention in various labour relations matters relating to contractors on the project. 

We take the issues mentioned in the letter from the association very seriously, and we are already in the process of meeting with the relevant parties from the contractors side, as well as representatives of the labour association, to ascertain the merits of the reports, and the circumstances leading up to them. 

“Where it is found that there has been a violation of obligations or contract, remedial action will be taken as stipulated in our contracts with all contractors on the project. Where there is a violation of the laws of Lesotho or statutes of the labor code, the relevant legal processes will apply.

“The LHDA appreciates when the complaints management systems in place are put to use and such matters are brought to our attention. This gives us a chance to act accordingly where intervention is warranted,” said LHDA’s Public Relations Manager Mpho Brown. 

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