MASERU – Basotho miners employed by one of the contracting companies at Letšeng mine in Mokhotlong – Minopex Lesotho – have accused their employer of unfair labour practices, alleging the company hired them on short-term contracts to avoid paying higher wages.
A three-month investigation has found that the miners employed on short-term contracts for prolonged periods, sometimes earned as little as M1 533.49 per month depending on the total number of hours worked in that particular month.
A copy of a February payslip of one of the workers shows that this employee who worked 86 normal working hours and 26 overtime hours, earned a mere M1 533.49 at the end of the month.
This means the miners sometimes earn less than textile factory workers who after a petition to the government and several demonstrations, saw their minimum wage jump to M1696 monthly up from M1238.
The anecdotal evidence – different copies of payslips and contracts of four employees – gathered by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism indicates that some miners were initially engaged by Minopex from as far back as July 2011 as casual labourers on short-term contracts but have up to as recently as October 2018, not been given permanent employment opportunities.
The workers told the Centre in October that there were 21 of them engaged by the company since 2011. They said some had left but also indicated that there were other groups which were allegedly engaged after 2011.
They said they were working harder but getting poorer day by day while their employer made millions of Maloti from the mine.
The documents which the Centre has show how Minopex chose not to permanently employ these miners but, instead, continuously offered them only short-term contractors’ assignments.
“Employment is offered with effect from 01/01/2013 to 31/12/2013. The description of the job is labourer and paid at the rate of M8.20 per hour/per month, based on shifts patterns as described by the company,” reads one of the workers’ contracts signed in 2013.
Sometimes the workers’ contracts are extended by only one month, and when the one-month period lapses, their contracts are extended again by two or three months.
“Whilst Minopex and the new company (VLP Construction) are finalising working agreements with Letšeng Diamonds, it is our please to inform you that your contract is here extended by one month from 01 July 2014 to 31 July 2014,” reads one the many agreements signed since 2011.
The subsequent agreement reads: “Whilst Minopex and the new company (VLP Construction) are finalising working agreement with Letšeng Diamonds, it is our please to inform you that your contract is here extended by one month from 01 August 2014 to 30 September 2014.”
The next one reads: “While Minopex continue negotiating with Letšeng Diamonds on the working arrangement, it is our pleasure to inform you that your contract is hereby extended from 01 October to 31 December 2014.”
Another contract signed for in 2016 read: “It is our pleasure to inform you that your contract is hereby extended from 01 January 2016 to 30 June 2016. Your salary rate will still be M10.43 per hour.”
Minopex did not respond to a request for comment sent to the company’s email address listed in its contracts with the workers. The telephone number listed in the contracts did not go through.
The Centre however sent a request for comment directly to Christo Davids – Regional Financial Accountant.
But Davids said he was in Botswana at one of Minopex’s operations and would only be returning on November 9, and suggested that rather than discussing these issues through e-mail, he would schedule a meeting as soon as he arrived from Botswana.
“Can you send us details on what you would like to discuss, then we can ensure we have all the relevant people available? Please confirm availability, I would like Bookholane our HR (Human Resource) Manager to attend as well as he would have all the details,” Davids said in an email on November 1.
A tentative meeting was scheduled for November 12, but Davids did not respond to subsequent emails.
Bookholoane also did not respond to a request for comment sent to his email.
The Centre found Minopex new offices at Lenyora House in Maseru closed when it visited this week.
The workers told the Centre that this kind of employment has no security, no pension and leaves them living from hand-to-mouth from one contract assignment to the next.
They said their lives were hard.
“I started working here in 2011 but I have not been able to plan financially, to build a house to settle like other employed men. We cannot even get loans from the banks. “We long to have permanent, steady jobs and feel part of this company which we have diligently worked for, for more than six years and be part of something long-term,” one worker said.
He added: “Our work has not changed for the better. Sometimes we earn over M3,000 while sometimes we earn as little as M1,500. We desire stability.”
The workers’ payslips show that in January this year, one worker was paid M2985.12 inclusive of overtime, M1533.49 in February and M1686.54 in September.
In April 2014, Minopex site manager Hattingh informed the workers in a letter that: “It is with great pleasure to inform you that, after consultation with the client, your salary has been increased and your new hourly rate will be M9.28.”
Hattingh also said the increase was effective from January 2014 and will reflect on “your May 2014 salary, with back-pay as appropriate.”
In April 2015, he wrote a letter to the same employee noting: “It is with great pleasure to inform you that after consultation with the client, your salary has been increased by M5.44 percent and your new hourly rate is M10.43.
He said this increase was effective from January 2015 and will reflect on May 2015 salary, with back-pay as appropriate.
“Because we are not permanent after these many years working here, we are not even afforded ordinary entitlements such as accommodation and transport to and from the mine,” the workers said.
The workers also told the Centre that they lived in a deprived informal settlement characterised by squalid living conditions, a few metres outside the Letšeng compound.
The unsightly informal settlement, known as Ka Mokhukhung or Ka Motseng, began as a squatter camp for people seeking jobs from the mine.
For interim employment, the job-seekers have turned to the informal economy, opening spaza shops and shebeens – unregulated drinking places.
Minopex Lesotho did not respond to the Centre’s emailed questions.
According to a Mining News article published on June 3, 2013, Minopex has “successfully operated Gem Diamonds’ Letšeng plant in Lesotho for 10 years, while also expanding into Botswana.
In the article titled: Diamond Process Professionals, Minopex business development director Rafael Abela was quoted saying: “Minopex has been involved operationally in every diamond plant in the diamond-rich Lesotho. So much so that companies Minopex Lesotho and Minopex Botswana were established to best support all activities to the diamond plants we work on in these two countries.”
Abela was also quoted saying: “The result of our drive to deliver and the commitment from our operational staff has seen our diamond operations staff headcount grow significantly over the years. We currently employ over 300 people for our diamond operations alone.”
Owned by the London-listed Gem Diamonds and the Lesotho government, Letšeng mine is the highest dollar per carat kimberlite diamond mine in the world.
It is Lesotho’s most successful diamond mine operation.
When contacted for comment this week, Letšeng Diamond Mine’s Communications & Community Relations Officer Lebohang Chefa said: “Kindly please direct your inquiry to Minopex. They will be in the best position to address it.”