IndustriALL Global Union affiliate the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL) joined civil society organizations in a demonstration in the capital, Maseru, on Sunday 27 November 2016 to demand a return to the rule of law.
About 20,000 people from IDUL, the Lesotho Council of NGOs, and the Lentsoe La Sechaba social movement took part. The demonstrators called on the government of the small southern African nation to restore democracy and the rule of law after a coup in 2014. The political instability threatens Lesotho’s duty free access to markets in the United States through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is vital for jobs.
IDUL has called on the government of Lesotho to comply with recommendations made by the regional co-operations body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to restore political stability. IDUL has 8,000 members who will be badly affected by job losses.
AGOA was introduced sixteen years ago by US President Bill Clinton, allowing a number of African countries duty-free access to US markets. AGOA transformed the economy of Lesotho, causing a 75 per cent growth in the garment industry, which is now the country’s largest private sector employer, with about 40,000 workers out of a total population of two million. An estimated further 200,000 jobs in transport, food and others areas are dependent on the garment sector.
Lesotho exports a quarter of a billion dollars worth of garments for US companies like Levi’s and Walmart every year.
But Lesotho’s access to AGOA is under threat: AGOA requires a commitment to political stability, democracy and human rights, and the 2014 coup has thrown the country into turmoil. After President Thabane suspended parliament to avoid a confidence vote, elements within the armed forces staged a coup. The president fled into exile and army commander Mahao was assassinated. A number of army officers were imprisoned and allegedly tortured.
The US has threatened Lesotho’s access to AGOA if the rule of law is not restored. SADC has intervened, and pledged to work with Lesotho to restore democracy, but the government has so far failed to implement SADC recommendations.
SADC recommends that the current army commander Kamoli resign, and that a criminal investigation into the death of Mahao is opened. Lesotho should also make structural and constitution changes to limit military interference in government.
Unions are calling on the government to adopt the recommendations and save the deal.
AGOA has transformed the lives of women. Eighty five per cent of textile workers are women, giving many financial independence for the first time, and the power to win paid maternity leave, and to challenge sexual harassment. These advances are threatened by the potential loss of AGOA.
Three other countries – Senegal, Madagascar and Swaziland - have lost access to AGOA for failing to comply with requirements for political stability and rule of law.
Last year, the US Congress voted to renew AGOA until 2025. The unions are calling on government to prepare an industrial development strategy for when this period ends.
IndustriALL assistant general secretary Atle Høie said:
“Lesotho’s workers, and particularly women workers, need AGOA. We call on the government to restore the rule of law, adopt the SADC guidelines and save the deal.
“The Lesotho government cannot be permitted to destroy progress made over the last years for these workers and the garment industry in the country. The international community must put pressure on the government to abide by the commitments in AGOA, which has made the industry and its workers prosper”