THOUSANDS of workers could starve if the government delays the implementation of the COVID-19 Private Sector Relief Fund to rescue businesses that are affected by the ongoing national lockdown.
Captains of industry told the Lesotho Times this week that the delay in the disbursement of relief finances have a dire impact on workers who are unlikely to get full salaries, if any this month.
This on the back of a national lockdown which started on 30 March and is expected to end on 5 May 2020.
Lesotho embarked onto the lockdown to avoid the possible spread of the deadly coronavirus. The lockdown entailed the closure of the majority of companies that are deemed non-essential.
Among operational businesses are banks, general cafes, supermarkets, farm feeds, wholesalers, meat wholesalers, domestic fuel dealers, bakeries, butcheries, green grocers and dairy shops. These open at 8am and close at 2pm.
Funeral homes, pharmacies, food and medicine manufacturing companies and garages are allowed to open for 24 hours.
On 13 April 2020, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane announced the establishment of a M500 million COVID-19 Private Sector Relief Fund.
“We all bear witness that the lives of our people and the country’s economy have been negatively affected by this pandemic,” Mr Thabane said at the time.
“During its 12 April 2020 sitting, the cabinet has resolved to establish a COVID-19 Private Sector/Economic Relief Fund, starting with M500 million contributed by the Government, in addition to the Disaster Relief Fund, which has a budget of M698 million,” Mr Thabane said.
However, since Mr Thabane’s announcement, the government has remained mum on the fund and the business sector says if the government does not immediately implement the fund, then thousands of workers may starve.
Although Mr Thabane also announced earlier this month that the government would for the next three months give the country’s 45 000 factory workers an M800 allowance each, the figure is still too low to sustain them.
And business people who spoke to the Lesotho Times this week said the government must expedite the relief fund to hedge workers against starvation.
Lesotho Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) secretary general, Fako Hakane said the government must speed up the implementation of the fund to help businesses that are in distress.
He said this could be worsened by the recent extension of the lockdown that was initially expected to end yesterday to 5 May 2020.
“The government’s relief fund is yet to take off. Given the unique economic situation of our country where we are net importers of food, we are likely to suffer food insecurity due to delayed intervention of the government.
“It is therefore, important for the government to speed up the implementation of the fund so that people do not starve,” Mr Hakane said.
He was supported by businessman and former Mining minister Lebohang Thotanyana who said the delay in the implementation of the fund would worsen many businesses’ financial situation.
“This is a big challenge especially for small businesses. This is this is the sector that employs many people.
“Clearly, most businesses do not have the cashflow because they did not trade. With the month-end coming in a few days, they will struggle to pay salaries, rent and other costs. Not all businesses are renting LNDC spaces where they will get payment holidays,” Mr Thotanyana said.
Textile garment sector unions are already expecting that payments of this month’s salaries would be delayed as talks between government and employers were on-going.
Lentsoe La Sechaba Workers’ Union (LESWU) secretary Monaheng Mokaoane said negotiations between employers and the government were still ongoing regarding the M800 for factory workers. Therefore, April salaries may be delayed by up to two weeks.
“Payment for textile workers for April 2020 is likely to be delayed well into the middle of next month because talks between the government and factory employers are yet to be concluded,” said Mr Mokaoane.
Solong Senohe, from the United Textile Workers Union there was a proposal that employers could use their funds to pay the workers the M800 that is supposed to come from the government and they would be reimbursed later.
He however, said the employees want reassurances.
Mr Hakane said delays were inevitable as the government would require parliament to appropriate the funds.
Parliament is expected to open this week after the courts last Friday nullified its March 2020 prorogation by Mr Thabane.
“Finances can only be appropriated by parliament and we are hopeful that now that parliament is back to business, the fund will be implemented soon,” Mr Hakane said.