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Mining company dumps workers unpaid as it packs up

MATIISETSO MOSALA

Basil Read mining’s failure to meet targets at Liqhobong Mining Development Company haunts the mining company over unpaid retrenchment packages and compensation of more than 154 employees.

The employees’ union, Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA), has filed an urgent application in the High Court accusing Basil Read of “unlawfully and unfair dismissal” after the mining company had its contract terminated by Liqhobong mine.

LEWA, In the court application, also insisted Liqhobong mine should also be held liable for ensuring that Basil Read employees get the due compensations as “it was well aware the company [Basil Read] is incompetent” when it engaged its services.

Basil Read, which was contracted by Liqhobong mine to carry out open pit mining operations for the mine in the highlands of northern Botha Bothe district, fired workers through an audio clip shared through a WhatsApp messenger group failing to issue formal termination letters and certificates of service as is required by law to employees.

MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism learnt the termination letters were later issued during negotiations with Basil Read but workers refused to sign after the company included a clause that barred workers from either making claims or suing the company for exit packages.

In 2018, the MNN Centre reported a highly controversial contract inked between Liqhobong mine and Basil Read which continued to exist despite fraud charges leveled against the latter.

Lesotho’s corruption watchdog, Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences sued South Africa-based Basil Read Mining (Proprietary) Limited, which wholly owns Basil Read, on two counts of fraud over questionable contract the Liqhobong mine entered into with Basil Read in 2017.

Now, in the court application, LEWA insist Liqhobong mine must be held liable for ensuring payment of their compensation by Basil Read.

The association argues in its court papers that “Liqhobong was cross-negligent in giving Basil Read a contract when it was in the process of liquidation and was not registered in Lesotho in 2017 [year of award]”.

But Liqhobong in its responding affidavit, through Operational Director Anton Cillier, argued that there is no basis either in fact or law for being held liable for Basil Read debts and obligations.

“The workers were employed by Basil Read and unfairly retrenched by the same company, it cannot be declared that our conduct amounts to gross negligence which led to the suffering of workers,” Cillier said in an affidavit.

Basil Read dismissed employees argue Liqhobong mine should have never awarded the company a contract, knowing it was already struggling to stay profitable and was failing to pay its creditors and keep afloat.

Basil Read road sign

This, according to the workers, was a clear indication that Basil Read would not deliver up to its agreement with the mine.

“Liqhobong cannot, fully aware, employ an incompetent contractor only to terminate the contract later on the basis of non-performance,” said the workers in court papers.

For its part, Liqhobong admits to having given Basil Read a contract but claims that it was preceded by rigorous assessment, tender evaluation and a site visit at its operations at another mining site in an unnamed jurisdiction.

One of the former employees Maselinyane Ntabejane narrated to MNN Centre the ordeal they are going through having unexpectedly lost their jobs.

“The one minute we were told to go home for a two-week break for the Covid-19 lockdown and the next we were told not to return to work,” Ntabejane said.

Ntabejane says following this break, they received messages in the company’s WhatsApp messenger group on April 9 from Human Resource Manager, ‘Mamphonyane Pitso, informing them they were no longer needed at work as Liqhobong Mine had terminated the company’s contract with immediate effect due to non-performance.

In an audio clip that MNN Centre has listened to, a lady purported to be Pitso said “…we have had a meeting as Basil Read management and I am afraid it’s not good news. We have received a contract termination letter from Liqhobong for failure to meet set targets”.

She goes on to explain that the termination is with immediate effect and that meant worker were not expected at work after lockdown was lifted.

Pitso said they would make arrangements for employees to fetch their belongings and promised to pay their April salaries in full.

“However, Basil Read will be contesting the termination of this contract even though we cannot stipulate at this point how long this process will take,” she said.

Pitso said consultations with employees ought to have been held prior to the end of the contract but because Liqhobong terminated the contract with immediate effect, that could not materialise.

Ntabejane says they were shocked when they received half salaries at the end of March, yet Liqhobong mine, ahead of lockdown had informed all employees of the contracted companies that “your employers have been paid in full, we therefore trust that you will get your full salaries”.

Following the April 9 announcement of retrenchment, workers went into consultations with the employer which were concluded on May 25. Ntabejane says they were technically still employees during the consultations therefore expected to be paid for the month of May but they never received their salaries.

“It has been very hard since then being out of a job. Even worse is that we are in trouble with insurances, furniture shops and banks due to non-payments that are not supported by proof of retrenchment because our employer did not release them,” Ntabejane said.

MNN Centre learned Basil Read’s employees have since split into two factions. A large number of about 154 which are part of LEWA and around 50 who are not part of the association.

Investigations reveal that workers who are not part of the association have been given their letters of termination, while LEWA members have not and they are accusing Basil Read of the association sabotage.

Other grievances of the disgruntled workers include the withholding of forms by Basil Read for release of their provident fund with Metropolitan Lesotho managed by Minet insurance broker Lesotho on behalf of the company.

In another audio clip, Pitso is in conversation with LEWA’s Secretary General, Hlalefang Seoaholimo, saying the workers have not signed termination letters therefore Basil Read could not process their provident funds.

Seoaholimo reiterates that the workers have not signed the letters because the company insists on including clauses that impede on their right to express their dissatisfaction should such need arise.

LEWA on behalf of the workers filed a court case against Basil Read in May over non-procedural and unfair retrenchment as well as outstanding salaries.

Initially scheduled for August 25 and 27, the case was last week postponed after respondent’s witnesses based in South Africa could not show up because of Covid-19 related closure of borders.

Seoaholimo said they expected such postponement but also that they had submitted an order with the Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs departments to permit the witnesses to cross over for the case.

“We were told this would only apply in Lesotho not South Africa so the case was postponed until the borders are open. It was however emphasised that the case remained urgent therefore will be regarded as such once borders are open,” Seoaholimo stated.

“It is unfair that the April salaries that employees received are deemed notice salaries yet consultations ended on May 25,” Seoaholimo said.

Contacted for further comment on the matter, Liqhobong’s Public Relation Officer Jerminah Khosi said she would consult with management and respond to questions but failed to do so before publishing.

Ramatheola Koboliea from Liqhobong village who worked for Basil Read says he cannot begin to explain how abruptly living without an income has affected him and his family.

He says they wanted a guarantee that employees who got injured on the job would still be taken care of but the company seemed disinterested in this too, claiming no employee had sustained any injuries on the job yet there were two case of injuries.

His expectation is that if the court rules in their favour; Basil Read be obliged to pay them salaries from May to August and compensate them for up to a year.

The employees are also accusing Basil Read of blocking their employment opportunities from other companies in the mining industry.

Koboliea talked of an incident where one company contracted by Letšeng Diamond mine was hiring where they applied for positions indicating that they were out of jobs yet did not have retrenchment letters.

Kobolia said “Mamphonyane [Pitso] was called by the company to vouch for us but instead of doing that she provided the company with a list of people who are not part of the association insinuating that we were trouble makers which led to some of us not getting the job.”

When contacted, Basil Read’s Pitso told MNN Centre that their former employees have sued the company in different cases and therefore could not comment on the matter.

“This matter is sub judice therefore I would not want to say anything that could jeopardize the proceedings in any way,” Pitso said.

Area Chief of Liqhobong Molumelloa Lesefa confirmed that about 30 of his villagers who worked for Basil Read are without jobs. He says the community liaison committee was informed by Liqhobong management that they had terminated their contract with Basil Read due to non-performance.

However, he says they failed to qualify why prior notice was not given to the committee well aware that a sizeable number of villagers in the area are employed by the company in question.

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