A woman has died after being shot during violent clashes between factory workers and police in Lesotho as trade unions say they have lost control over angry protests over pay.
Demonstrations spilled over into violence in what is the second week of industrial action, with looting and damage to several businesses in the capital Maseru.
Lesotho’s 50,000 factory workers are demanding a 20% salary increase for the lowest paid employees, who take home the local equivalent of £113.73 a month. The employers say they can only pay a 5% increase because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their businesses.
Orders from US clients have dropped while the costs of procuring some of the materials they import have risen, the textile companies say.
The strike started two weeks ago and workers have been fighting running battles with police and army officers, who have been blocking the protests, which they say are “in contravention of Covid-19 regulations”.
Last week, workers blocked roads with rocks, logs, broken streetlamps and rubbish bins, which the police dispersed with a water cannon.
The protests turned violent after the government announced that it had engaged the International Labour Organization (ILO) to mediate the standoff. Some of the protesters went on a looting spree, mainly targeting Chinese-owned businesses.
Many shops and warehouses were left empty while some protesters also took gas cylinders on Tuesday evening. The looting only ended when armed police and army officers were deployed.
Gunfire could be heard until early on Wednesday morning. During these clashes a worker, Motselisi Manase, was fatally shot.
Sam Mokhele, from the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU), told the Guardian on Thursday: “It is unfortunate that we lost one of our members, Motselisi Manase, who worked in the packaging department at Nien Hsing textile factory. It is sad that neither the police nor the army, who were both present, are acknowledging the tragic death.”
NACTWU is handling the funeral expenses, he said.
National police spokesperson Supt Mpiti Mopeli on Thursday confirmed the death but said he had no further details.
Last month, three workers were hospitalised after police shot at demonstrators with rubber bullets. In November last year Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane criticised the police for “state-sponsored violence” against civilians in violation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing their freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
He awarded a man from Mafeteng, Tšolo Tjela, who was tortured and humiliated by police officers in 2015, the equivalent of £20,500 in claims. After the police appealed the ruling, the court of appeal changed the award to £12,800.
The textile workers accuse the government, which is charged with mediating between the workers and factory owners as well as setting the minimum wage, of insincerity in its dealings. They say the move to engage the ILO was never discussed in the unions’ engagements with a ministerial subcommittee set up to look into the matter.
Unions say they are no longer in control of the angry workers, who argue that their earnings can no longer sustain them as prices of goods have increased dramatically since the first Covid-19 lockdown last year. Cooking oil alone has more than doubled in price.
Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro on Wednesday evening said a new salary would be published on 16 June and encouraged the strikers to return to work.
But the unions responded that workers would “stay at home until they have a concrete promise that they would get salary increments” despite the threat of having their salaries for May docked for the days that they have been out of work.
According to unions, 95% of the workers are women, and low wages exacerbates their vulnerability in a country with a high prevalence of violent crimes against women.