Fresh headache for Thabane

Fresh headache for Thabane

MASERU – PRIME Minister Thomas Thabane faces a fresh headache over how to deal with the conflicting expectations of different stakeholders in the country, all of whom banked on him to improve their lot. By last night the government was still trying to put out the fires torched by its decision to hike the taxi fares by 50 percent on Monday and then beating a hasty retreat 24 hours later after howls of protests from the public and some senior government officials.

The taxi fare debacle comes as labour unions are piling pressure on the government to review the minimum wage. Unions have already rejected a seven percent increase and are demanding a M2 000 minimum wage to be topped up with an annual increase. The new pay levels have not been announced as unions, the government and businesses haggle over the figures. And agreement does not appear to be within reach yet.

While the public is screaming over taxi fares and factory workers are demanding more businesses have been pleading poverty, claiming that they are already in choppy waters because of the depressed economy. The Water and Sewerage Company (Wasco) wants to review water tariffs by 12 percent for domestic users and 15 percent for companies. The Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) is asking for a staggering 21.3 percent increase on power tariffs. Reactions to those tariff proposals have been icy with both the public and business seeing them as too steep.

Complicating matters is that the government has already awarded a 4 percent salary hike for its employees. This came at the same time as the government’s one percent increase on Value Added Tax that has led to a surge in prices. In the middle of this fiasco is Thabane’s coalition government which promised to review salaries and address the concerns of the taxi operators. Pleasing all stakeholders would require masterful maneuvering. The immediate problem for the government is the looming battle with public transport owners over taxi fares.

On Monday, the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Prince Maliehe, announced a 50 percent hike on taxi fares, triggering howls of protest from the public and some senior officials in government. On Tuesday, Maliehe retreated in the face of public anger and opposition from within government. This time he said the implementation of the new fares recommended by the Road Transport Board would be suspended temporarily. That calmed nerves in the public and the government but attracted the wrath of transport operators who believe the minister is shifting goalposts at their expense.

A crunch meeting of the government and the transport owners is set for today but taxi operators say they will not accept anything less than the M1 per kilometre initially announced. There is palpable anger among taxi operators who feel the government has kept the lid on the taxi fares for too long. Mokete Jonase, president of Maseru Region Taxi Operators, said the minister or the Cabinet has no power to reverse the decision. That power, Mokete says, is vested with the Transport Board. Mokete was adamant that they are still going to implement the new prices.

“The letter has been written to the transport board and not to us,” Jonase said. Limema Phohlo of Bochabela Transport Operators Region also insisted that they will stick to the new prices. We just want to hear what the government will say, Phohlo said. UNITE Secretary General Qamaka Ntšene said given the proposed water and power tariffs, and the impending taxi fare hike, it is clear that factory workers will be squeezed hard. He said the factory workers who were already struggling to pay M6 will be doomed if it’s increased to M10. “If we do not act it will be a disaster,” he said.

An equally disgruntled Independent Democratic Unions of Lesotho (IDUL) secretary general, Mei Rathakane, said an increase in taxi fares will hit workers hard because the Ministry of Labour and Employment has already confirmed a seven percent increase for factory workers. “This is going to affect workers badly as the minister also failed to increase salaries to M2000,” he said. Rathakane also said they had a meeting with Prime Minister Thomas Thabane last week where they discussed salary increments. He said Thabane told them that they would get a response this week as the board has recommended M2 000 as a basic salary for the factory workers.

“We are yet to have a meeting with other trade unions to discuss this issue. It is unfortunate that factory workers voted Thabane into power but they are still struggling,” he said. Nkareng Letsie from Consumer Protection Association (CPA) said consumers are already struggling to make ends meet. Letsie said it is an undeniable fact that the taxi operators are struggling and that M10 is unjustifiable. Letsie said Botswana has just reviewed its taxi fares to 5 Pula, which is equivalent to M6.50.

“Botswana transport owners still believe that they are going to make profits,” he said. Maliehe said the initial fare was increased with the interest of both the commuters and taxi operators in mind. “For the past five years, the law has not been followed as it states that every year prices should be reviewed,” he said. The minister said the law gives him power to mediate where there are disagreements. “This is what l have done for the benefit of both Basotho and the transport operators,” Maliehe said.

Some government officials openly disagreed with Maliehe, who is also the ABC deputy leader. He was challenged on air by Basotho National Party (BNP) spokesman Deputy Home Affairs Minister, Machesetsa Mofomobe. Mofomobe said the poor will not afford the new fares. Alliance of Democrats (AD) spokesperson Thuso Litjobo also objected to the decision.

Nkheli Liphoto

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