Protecting pregnant workers’ rights in Lesotho

How the Better Work Programme of the ILO and the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) promotes decent work for young women in Lesotho’s garment industry.

MASERU, Lesotho (ILO News) – 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.’’ 
 

If your work requires you to work standing, you have to work standing, even when you are pregnant."

Mamontseng Habahaba

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. 

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. The issue is critical, not just in Lesotho, but across the world, where a majority of factory workers are of child-bearing age,” says Kristina Kurths, Programme Manager of Better Work in Lesotho. 

“With the majority of garment workers being young women, maternity rights at work are of great importance. In Lesotho, Better Work is striving to ensure that the needs and rights of pregnant workers are being met.” 
 

In Lesotho, Better Work is striving to ensure that the needs and rights of pregnant workers are being met."

Kristina Kurths, Programme Manager of Better Work in Lesotho

Better Work Lesotho  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. 

“We learned that awareness regarding the rights and needs of pregnant workers remains low. In a number of factories, workers were not aware of the change in the law which increased paid maternity leave from two to six weeks. Pregnant workers are not always being accommodated at their jobs with lighter work loads, and are often not aware of the health and safety risks at their workplace that could harm their unborn child,” explains Kurths. 

What’s more, many workers report for duty one month after giving birth, worried about losing income by being home with their babies. 

Habahaba stayed with her baby for two months, though is now feeling the pinch of lost income. Her monthly earnings of 1080 Lesotho Lotis (about US$ 80 ) get chiseled away each month with the nanny she hired to care for her baby and her first child, while another M150 goes towards paying the rent, leaving a slim margin for Habahaba and her husband to cover food costs and other bills. 

“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. 
 

Better Work Lesotho

Better Work Lesotho  is a partnership programme between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). In operation since May 2010, its ultimate goal is to reduce poverty by creating decent work opportunities in Lesotho’s garment industry. 

At the end of its first phase (December 2013), the Programme was able to reach out to 65% of garment industry workers and 84% of factories exporting to the United States.. It currently works with 15 garment factories and one footwear company who have subscribed to Better Work Lesotho services. It is funded by the US Department of Labor.