KOPANO Ke Matla, a joint venture of companies working at the construction of Polihali Dam, is accused of being in contempt after defying a court order stopping it from proceeding with retrenchments.
Feb. 6, 2024
5 min read
Job cuts loom at Polihali
Construction work at the Polihali Dam
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About 150 jobs are at stake.
Some employees who spoke to Public Eye last week said they have received retrenchment letters despite the court order.
The Labour Court ordered the stay of execution of retrenchments earlier last month, but Kopano Ke Matla is said to have ignored the injunction.
The order is interim, so the court has also directed parties to negotiate the matter, pending the final judgment.
A bricklayer at Kopano Ke Matla JV, Makalo Kou alleged the management is ignoring the court order because it is still going ahead with the retrenchment.
Kou said they were never given reasons as to why the retrenchments were necessary but only received letters informing them of the intended job losses.
He said efforts to get an explanation from the management were fruitless.
“We even went to the consultant, seeking assistance, but we were not assisted. The management is doing whatever they want as though there are no contracts or agreements signed between us. As workers, we are deeply troubled and worried for our families, but if we can keep our jobs until 2025, we will have accomplished a lot. Going back home prematurely will suffocate us with hunger,” he said.
Public Eye saw a copy of the purported retrenchment letter addressed to one of the workers on January 18, 2024, which read, in part:
“We regret to inform you that you have been retrenched as the project you were engaged in has come to an end. You are given a month's notice, which will start on January 18 and end on January 24, 2024. You will be paid your leave days and salary accordingly.
Kopano Ke Matla Joint Venture comprises Yellow River Company of China Sinohydro Bureau from China and Unik Civil Engineering from the neighbouring South Africa.
Most of the employees’ contracts seen by Public Eye are set to end in 2025.
What is concerning to the workers is the fact that their retrenchments conveniently come a year before the contract’s end date.
Kou explains that his contract was supposed to end in June 2025, which means he has received a letter of retrenchment a year ahead of time.
One other employee who preferred not to be identified said he believes that the retrenchments are a result of misunderstandings and a lack of cooperation by the companies under the joint venture.
Construction, Mining, Quarrying, and Allied Workers Union (CMQ) Secretary General (SG), Robert Mokhahlane, told Public Eye the association has been made aware of the retrenchments.
Mokhahlane said the explanation by the Joint Venture is that the project is coming to an end, yet they are certain that Polihali construction is still in the early stages.
He said their explanation is not understandable and noted that while they are retrenching workers, there are also advertisements for job openings at the venture, with the most recent such advertisement still open and only closing on February 14.
Mokhahlane cited the Labour Code (Codes of Good Practice) Notice of 2003 clause 19(5), which states that the obligation to negotiate in good faith requires that negotiations begin as soon as a reduction of the workforce is contemplated.
"... and should be long enough for the union to meet and report to employees; meet with the employer; and request, receive, and consider all the relevant information to enable the trade union to inform itself of the relevant facts for the purpose of reaching agreement with the employer on possible alternative solutions and, if necessary, find alternative employment in the business or elsewhere.”
The union leader said all these important considerations were not factored in.
He added: “These apply effectively for both parties, which means the employer does not just wake up the next day writing and issuing letters of retrenchment to employees, which is considered illegal in that instance. To date, the company has not given the union any reason whatsoever for the sudden retrenchment of workers.”
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Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) Public Relations Manager Mpho Brown said the LHDA was made aware of the retrenchments through members of the workers union at a recent meeting.
Brown said the authority has not been asked to intervene directly and is aware that the matter is before court.
“We are engaging closely internally to continue to remain informed on the progress of this matter. As things stand, the LHDA was not requested directly for intervention.
“However, the LHDA is aware that the union has taken this matter to the courts of law, and a stay of judgment was delivered for the contractors to halt the retrenchment and the parties to engage between employer and employees to resolve the matter.”
He also said they cannot directly interfere with employment contracts between contractors and their employees but are concerned about factors that may affect the progress of the project.
“While the LHDA cannot directly interfere with employment contracts between the employers (contractors) and their employees, as the authority responsible for the implementation of Phase II of the LHWP, the LHDA is concerned about any factors that may affect the project’s progress and is committed to facilitating speedy resolution of issues,” he said.
Brown added that LHDA stands ready to facilitate and mediate negotiations where necessary or if requested to do so by the parties involved.
Where the laws of Lesotho or contractual obligations are broken, the requisite legal process kicks in to guide the LHDA on the appropriate intervention and response, he said, adding that situations that come to the LHDA regarding contractors on the project and their employees are different.
“As the authority charged with successful and timely implementation of the LHWP, we urge all parties involved in the project to resolve matters amicably, speedily, and most importantly within the confines of the labour code of Lesotho. Delays or disruptions to the implementation of the project directly and negatively affect those in the communities that are meant to benefit from the project and further affect the national benefits that accrue from the project to the government of Lesotho.
“We believe that open and equitable engagement, as well as transparent communication, can go a long way in improving relations in the workplace,” Brown said.