« 100 YEARS – 100 LIVES » | LESOTHO - “Pregnant female workers need better protection”

The ILO-IFC Better Work programme in Lesotho helps female workers to learn about their maternity rights so that they can be applied.

Reportage | Lesotho |
MASERU – When 31-year-old Mamontseng Habahaba was pregnant with her third child, the quality control inspector at one of Lesotho’s 39 garment factories did not bother telling her supervisor. She figured she would just work until it was time to give birth, unaware of her rights as a pregnant factory worker.

Into her second and third trimester, she struggled to stay on her feet for her nine-hour daytime shift, and though her pregnancy eventually became obvious, she was not provided a chair to sit on, nor did she dare to ask for one.

“This is something that cannot be done in this factory,” Habahaba said. “If your work requires you to work standing, you have to work standing, even when you are pregnant.’’

Habahaba requested maternity leave when she was seven months pregnant, and she took her leave at the last possible moment, on 15 January 2014. Four days later, she gave birth prematurely to Molise Habahaba, a 3.6 kg baby boy named after his grandfather.

Seven years earlier, Mamontseng Habahaba had quit her job at the same factory, unable to afford a nanny when she gave birth to her first child. This time, the family’s financial strain sent her back to work two months after Molise was born.

Unaware of her maternity rights

What Habahaba knew from her supervisor and other colleagues at the factory was that she was allowed 12 weeks leave. What she did not yet know was that a law amended in October 2013 requires paid leave for six of those 12 weeks. When Habahaba returned to work, she was only given two weeks’ pay to cover the time she took off. What’s more, with an extra mouth to feed, she also began working overtime even though labour laws prohibit nursing mothers from taking extra hours.

Habahaba said she did not know she was not supposed to work overtime. And only recently was she aware of the amended law on paid maternity leave.

“We only knew some time ago and we lodged a complaint to our shop stewards and they are working on the issue,” Habahaba said. “However, the workers that came back from maternity leave after we lodged the complaint have been paid six weeks.’’

Promoting maternity benefits and rights

“Habahaba’s situation repeats itself at other apparel factories where pregnant workers face losing out on benefits entitled to them and rights that protect them in the workplace before and after giving birth,” says Kristina Kurths, from Better Work Lesotho, a partnership programme from the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The project helps protect pregnant workers by offering maternity protection training as part of its Workers’ Life Skills Programme. Under this new initiative, human resource managers of factories are trained to understand and observe the law, and also train peer educators who in turn instructing their co-workers on maternity health issues.

Drilling deeper into the issue, the Programme conducted a series of Workers Focus Group discussions with workers from 17 factories to help Better Work and the factories it works with better understand the unique needs of pregnant workers.

Habahaba stayed with her baby for two months, though is now feeling the pinch of lost income.

Better protection

“Factory improvements, such as a subsidised nursery on site, would help reduce the financial burden for working mothers of newborns,” Habahaba says.

Better Work Lesotho therefore plans to deepen its work at the factory level among managers and workers so that employees like Habahaba are being better protected. Progress has already been made: as of late 2013, workers in a factory for one year or more are now entitled six weeks of paid maternity leave.

“Maternity protection in the apparel industry workplace has been a long neglected topic. We are working together with our partners – unions, employers and the government to strengthen the law and promote compliance with it. The Programme is a first step to creating decent work in Lesotho’s key industry which is part of the global garment supply chain,” concludes Kurths.

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