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Workers drag firm to court over Covid funds

Business

Mohloai Mpesi

Some 76 workers in the employ of Bull Clothing, a textile firm, have dragged the firm to court over non-payment of the Covid-19 relief fund as well as unfair dismissal.

The workers lamented that since July last year the clothing firm located at Thetsane Industrial Area in Maseru, has refused to pay their M800 funds citing that government, through Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) had not disbursed the said funds to distribute to their bank accounts.

Therefore, consequently, two of their fellow employees died in October and November last year due from starvation following a bout of unfair dismissals meted against those who were fighting for their unpaid funds.

The complainants who are represented by Sekonyela Chambers and Associates, further aver that due to the company’s near-expiry contract, chances that they will otherwise be paid are very slim. They allege that the company has only up to end of the month operating in the country.

Five of the plaintiffs; Motšelisi Letele, Mathato Khethi, Pulane Makoae, Maphakisi Kiibe and Masennane Marole told this publication earlier this week that their lives became hard after their unfair dismissal

“We have been going up and down trying to find solution to this problem. Our lives are a mess because it is difficult to buy food and clothes for our children, to pay for their school fees, and to pay rent since we are no longer working,” they said.

“We went to the Minister of Labour who has unfortunately been dragging feet thus showing unwillingness to help us. We also went to the ministry’s Principal Secretary who doesn’t know anything, we have to start from the beginning.

“But we will not stop, we will not be discouraged, we are going to fight until we get our dues,” they said.     

In an initiative to salvage the problem, Sekonyela Chambers and Associates wrote to both the manager of the company and LNDC in a letter dated December 18, 2020, seeking for a contract which was said to expire soon, but it was all to no avail. 

“We are the legal representatives of the dismissed employees of Bull Clothing (Pty) Ltd. Our clients have just learned that your company’s (Bull Clothing) Pty Ltd contract with LNDC is to expire very soon and we have lodged an application for unfair dismissal against the said company in courts of law.

“We are instructed as we hereby do to demand you provide us with a copy of the said contract within three (3) days upon receipt of this letter failing which we shall have no option but to resort to courts of law,” the letter read.

However, LNDC through its then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mohato Seleke, refused to partake in the dispute.

“The corporation’s mandate is encapsulated in section 4 (1) of LNDC Act No.13 of 1990. The Corporation’s mandate requires that it must play a fair and balanced role in matters affecting both Employees and Employers without taking an active role that appears to favour one over the other, especially in matters in which the parties have failed to reach amicable resolution.

“To appear to take sides in the matter would erode confidence of either stakeholder in the Corporation. The Corporation takes this role seriously as to hold otherwise would significantly wane any efforts to bring more investors into the country.

“This being in contentious matter, the Corporation has taken a conscious decision to refrain from playing an active role in contemplated court or actual court cases, in as much as the Corporation’s contractual agreements are confidential agreements entered into in good faith.

“The Corporation is accordingly unable to be of assistance in the manner requested. The Corporation still desires that any possibilities of a resolution be explored to reserve all investments and employment,” the letter reads.          

The workers then resorted to the Labour Court for intervention as option of last resort following the unpalatable response from the LNDC.

In their application, they want the court to order the company to pay them their due wages as well as compensation for their unfair dismissal, whence Bull Clothing and LNDC were listed as first and second respondents accordingly.

“The Applicants herein were employees of the first Respondents and they are unionized members of the following trade unions United Textile Employees (Unite), Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL) and National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU).

“The facts are as follows; the applicants were the employees of the first Respondent all along in the textile industry. The government of Lesotho declared a lockdown in order to minimize rate of infections of Covid-19 and the first respondent’s business was affected and closed.

“In order to mitigate the consequential disaster brought by Covid-19, the government of Lesotho paid M800.00 to all employees in the textile industry per month for the period of three months and the first Respondent’s employees herein were not an exception.

“The money from the government of Lesotho through second Respondent namely LNDC was paid directly into the business accounts of first Respondent in order to distribute it into employees’ accounts.

“On or about July 2020, the second Respondent paid the last instalment into first Respondent’s account and as usual the employees expected the first Respondent to deposit the said money into their bank accounts but this time they were informed the second Respondent had not yet transferred the said money to the first Respondent.

“The applicants learned later that the other firms in the same industry had paid their employees those allowances of M800 from the second Respondent and they went to inquire from the Human Resource who told them that the first Respondent manager had not received any money from the second Respondent,” the application reads.

“The applicants’ representatives and unions inquired from the second Respondent about their allowances whereby they were informed that the money had already been transferred into first Respondent’s business account.

“The union reported back to the Applicants and the said applicants went back to the Human Resource whereby they were told by the said Human Resources that they will not get their allowances because they did not work for it.

“On or about June 21, 2020, the employees together with the Applicants demanded their allowances and made protest against the first Respondent’s answers and conduct.

“The Respondent issued letters of dismissal to the employees including inter alia the Applicants herein on the grounds that they were in an unlawful strike. The Applicants challenged the dismissal at DDPR and the matter was unable to be resolved in a conciliation process as the DDPR has issued certificate to that effect.

“The Applicants herein referred their disputes at DDPR under different case numbers as … and the matters were consolidated as they were heard or conciliated as one case.

“The Applicants wish to take this Honourable court into confidence that there are some other Applicants who were offered employment and they accepted the offer due to avoid un-employment consequences though they were not happy with their dismissal by the first Respondent.

“There are Applicants who were not offered re-employment and they are not seeking reinstatement but inter alia their terminal benefits and the compensation as they lost interest for working with the first Respondent.

“The Applicants through their unions namely … together with the government of Lesotho tried to resolve the matter but all in vain as the first Respondent has made clear that he would not reinstate the applicants in their positions.

“Grounds of urgency, the Applicant learnt that the contract of the said first Respondent with the second respondent is about to expire in February 2021 and they through their counsel of record requested the said information to the second Respondent in order to seek legal advice.

“The Applicants … explained why they needed that information but the second Respondent refused to provide or disclose such information to the Applicants on the grounds that inter alia to erode confidence of either stakeholder in the corporation.

“If this Application cannot be granted on urgent basis Applicants would be left without the remedies against the first Respondent and likely to skip the country before the matter is finalized.”

The application further states, “The Applicants also pray this Honourable court to order the second Respondent to transmit the copy of contract or contracts of the first Respondent with second Respondent or any document relating to the relationship of the first Respondent and second Respondent as they have reasonable believe that the second Respondent will skip the jurisdiction of this Honourable court before final determination of this matter.

“The Applicants advised and believe same to be true that the availability of the copy of contract between the first and second Respondents would assist them in order to determine whether they approached this Honourable court on urgent basis as they learned that the first Respondent contract is to expire mid-February 2021.

“The Applicants herein have no other alternative but to come before this honourable court to challenge the said unfair and unlawful dismissal against them, some to be reinstated in their position without loss of benefits while others to be paid compensation of 48 months’ salaries.

 â€œThe first Respondent shall not pay costs of this Application, that the Applicant be granted further or alternative relief,” they maintain.

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