Ramochela: Ahoy comrades

Ramochela: Ahoy comrades

Staff Reporter

MASERU – That is how Tšeliso Elliot Ramochela, the secretary general of the National Union of Commerce, Catering and Allied Workers (NUCCAW), describes the state of the trade union movement in Lesotho.

He says that is particularly true in the textile sector.

The sector, which is the second biggest employer after the civil service, employs about 35 000 workers country-wide.

Yet salaries are pathetic. The highest paid worker earns slightly above a thousand maloti, money that is enough to pay one premium subscription for Dstv a month.

A vigorous and noisy push by trade unions for the lowest paid factory worker to earn M2 020 a month in the run-up to the 2012 general election has fizzled out without much success.

In the meantime, the plight of the factory worker has remained largely unchanged.

Conditions in the textile factories are also tough, with workers mostly women, spending long hours performing back-breaking tasks.

“The history of the textile sector shows we should have the highest paid workers in this country. Our products are exported in terms of United States dollars,” he says.

But instead of fighting for the rights of workers, Ramochela says most trade unions in Lesotho are largely impotent.

“We are failing to do that because we are not organised,” he says. “People cannot sit down and agree to improve the lot of workers.”

Ramochela argues the workers’ dire condition is mainly because “there is no enough pressure from the textile unions” to improve the conditions of service for workers.

This is because “they are weak and not properly organised”.

He argues the weak state of the trade unions is mainly because the players in the trade union movement are driven by selfish motives with no real interest in improving the plight of workers.

Ramochela says the “trade union movement has been commercialised” with serious consequences for the fight against worker abuse.

“The ‘commercial unionism’ has seen the setting up of many briefcase trade unions by individuals to collect trade union dues,” he says.

They simply want to create jobs for themselves, he says.

“The situation in the textile sector is pathetic. In fact it is heart-breaking because it is not organised.

“We cannot improve the lot of workers unless we sit down with the employers and negotiate something for the improvement of wages and working conditions,” he says.

But to get back their mojo, Ramochela says he has tried to “talk sense to his colleagues” but too often he realises “we are being outsmarted by politicians”.

“We have realised some trade unions are tied to the aprons of certain political parties and we cannot sit down and talk sense with them because they have an assignment from their bosses (in the political parties),” he says.

To deal with the current challenges, Ramochela says Lesotho “needs an apex body to confront the government and the churches which are the main employers”.

He says teachers, who are mainly employed by the government and the church, are currently splintered into three or four trade unions and as a result cannot speak with one voice to push for their rights.

An apex body would fix those challenges, he says.

Ramochela says there is also need to set up a labour training centre for trade union members.

Such a centre would train trade unionists how to administer unions, how to handle finances and democracy in unions.

“We need political will to assist with the training of real leaders on the shop floor.”

Born in Sekameng in Mafeteng on March 12, 1950, Ramochela says his first brush with “worker oppression” came when he worked in the mines in South Africa in 1972 earning a princely sum of about R22.50 a month.

He says he was working as an “African personnel assistant” and his role was to assist “the boss (who was White) communicate with the natives”.

As a Mosotho with limited education, the position of “African personnel assistant” was the highest he could attain in the mines.

Ramochela says black miners who worked in the belly of the earth earned far less than him.

The whole system was oppressive, he says.

For instance, migrant mine workers could not come back home regularly to Lesotho and would only get 12 days leave every year.

But because of the distance and the travel involved, they effectively enjoyed just eight days with their families back home in Lesotho.

He says he went through the same challenges his father had experienced when he too was a migrant labourer in South Africa.

“He never came home regularly because of the pass system that was there. He would only come home once every 12 months,” he says, adding Lesotho was used as a reserve labour camp for South Africa.

It is no surprise that after working in the mines for two years, the young Ramochela could not take it anymore and left to work for a supermarket in Johannesburg where conditions were slightly better.

In June 1976, Ramochela packed his bags and headed home to Lesotho with the aim of furthering his studies. He joined the Lesotho Electricity Corporation (LEC) where he worked until 1981 when he joined the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

It was while he was with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions that he developed a keen interest in trade unionism.

He says their mandate was to train and encourage former mine workers and many other Basotho to look at alternatives for a living instead of just focusing on migrant work in South Africa.

“We encouraged them to look at other projects such as poultry and agro-based activities. We could see that the mines were facing a decline and wanted to prepare them to look for alternatives,” he says.

As a member of the Commonwealth Trade Union Council, Ramochela says they did a lot of work in mobilising and training members of the South African Trade Union Congress, a forerunner of COSATU, during the last days of apartheid in the late 1980s.

After a stint at Oxford University in the United Kingdom where he sharpened his understanding of the trade union movement, Ramochela came back home in 1986 and later joined the Lesotho Union of Clothing and Textile Employees.

In 1993, Ramochela was among a group of trade unionists who formed the National Union of Commerce, Catering and Other Workers (NUCCAW). He was appointed the union’s national organiser.

Lesotho’s trade union movement has had a very stormy past starting with the earlier unions before independence in 1966.

The five unions that existed then fell under the auspices of the Basutoland Federation of Labour.

“These were very powerful unions. Because of the national yearning for independence all social forces merged together to fight for independence,” he says.

However after independence, the trade unions began to fragment along party political lines, he says.

“This fuelled a lot of rivalry among unions. One trade union would even come to a plant to de-campaign another trade union, which weakened the trade unions.”

But in the late 1990s, Ramochela says there was a fresh attempt to merge the two main rival trade unions in Lesotho under the Lesotho Federation of Free Trade Unions.

That attempt however came to naught after it was dissolved following a High Court judgement that cited procedural irregularities in its registration.
“However, those who were willing to see Lesotho with one national trade union centre persisted with their efforts which resulted in the formation of the Lesotho Labour Congress between 1990 and 1993,” he says.

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