Workers hired for advance infrastructure developments ahead of the construction of the multi-billion maloti Polihali Dam have threatened legal action against their employers whom they accuse of unfair labour practices.
The workers, who have coalesced under the banner of the Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers' Union (CMQ), accuse their employers of underpaying them, failing to provide adequate protective clothing, among other discriminatory labour practices.
Their ire is particularly directed at two local firms, Nthane Brothers and LSP Construction, who won major tenders at Polihali in joint ventures with international companies.
CMQ secretary general, Robert Mokhahlane, outlined the workers' grievances at a press conference in Maseru this week. He issued an ominous threat that the workers would derail the bi-national project if their grievances were not speedily addressed by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA).
The LHDA is the implementing authority of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II) which consists of the construction of the
Polihali dam and all advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunications), among other things.
Construction of the advance infrastructure works commenced in February this year.
The workers accuse local companies, Nthane Brothers Pty (Ltd) and LSP Construction, of conniving with their international partners to underpay them. Nthane Brothers, along with their partner, Sinohydro SA, were awarded a lucrative M235 million tender to build a 16-kilometre road which stretches from Mapholaneng to the Khubelu River where the Polihali dam is going to be constructed next year. Nthane Brothers has a majority 60 percent stake in the joint venture with Sinohydro SA.
The LSP Construction/WBHO joint venture was awarded a housing and infrastructure works contract worth M394 million. The scope of the work includes earthworks and the creation of platforms for buildings, water and wastewater systems, landfill, roads, drainage, electrical and telecommunications networks..
Mr Mokhahlane said the workers were appalled by their unfair treatment by the local companies and their international partners.
"These companies are grossly violating the country's minimum wage laws," Mr Mokhahlane said.
"The skilled workers' pay slips indicate that the workers are paid at a daily rate of M207 although the gazetted minimum wage per day is M280. This is an indication that these companies are paying below the legal threshold.
"On unskilled labour, the minimum wage gazette is clear that such people are to be paid at a rate of M122 per day. However, the contractors are only paying them M98 per day, which shows that these companies are operating outside this country's labour laws.
"It seems the local companies such as LSP Construction and Nthane Brothers are hell bent on underpaying workers. But workers from outside the country are paid at way higher rates than what their local counterparts are being paid."
There was no immediate responds to Mr Mokhahlane's public comments from both Nthane Brothers and LSP construction.
Mr Mokhahlane also accused South African labour brokers, Setlobox, of illegally deducting money from their salaries. He alleged the company was not legally registered to operate in Lesotho.
"The problem with unregistered companies is that they tend to leave without notice and without paying their workers. Again, when you look at the workers' pay slips, there is what is called the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). This is a tax deduction in South Africa but local workers also have UIF deductions on their salaries.
"We have tried to engage the LHDA on this matter... but up to now no action has been taken to address the issue. We also informed the Employment Services Department of the Ministry of Labour and Employment about this company (Crossmoor) but nothing has changed."
Mr Mokhahlane warned that the workers would take legal action to stop work in Polihali if their grievances were not addressed.
"We therefore appeal to the authorities to take appropriate action now because failure to do will force us to take legal action to block operations at the dam site," Mr Mokhahlane said. In a response to the allegations last night, the LHDA said it was yet to verify the allegations of underpayment of the workers.
"The LHDA is making arrangements to verify the findings of the inspection and will also to investigate the allegations that the remuneration of workers is not aligned to the minimum wages gazette," the LHDA said in a statement to Lesotho Times.
On the engagement of a company called Setlobox, the LHDA indicated that the company does not operate as a labour broker but as a sub-contractor under the WHBO/LSP Construction joint venture for the purposes of haulage.
"The company (Setlobox) has also supplied the joint venture with earthworks equipment for civil works construction, water and sewerage pipe networks, and electricity installation at Masakong in Polihali where accommodation and administration facilities are to be erected."
"Setlobox does not operate as labour broker. What happened is that of the 19 workers who brought the earthworks equipment with the assumption they would operate it, their positions were instead advertised and 17 locals and two workers from outside the country were hired."
"A mistake that seems to have happened is that when the payroll for Setlobox was prepared, deductions for the Unemployment Insurance Fund was applied to both the local workers and expatriates. That mistake has since been rectified and the deducted monies returned to their owners," the LHDA said.