A Chinese construction company, Qingjian Group (CNQC), delivering the M1.3 billion (US$84.5 million) Mpiti to Sehlabathebe road project has been accused of human rights violations and has gone unpunished by local authorities as it sweeps complaints under the carpet. These violations include Basotho female workers being subjected to sexual harassment by their Chinese supervisors.
Almost all the women who dared to stand up for their rights have been fired from the company while Qingjian Group (CNQC) hastily ships suspects back to China as part of an elaborate plan to protect the Chinese nationals from prosecution.
CNQC was appointed by the Exim Bank of China to construct a 91-kilometre tarred road at Qacha’s Nek, Tsoelike Constituency, after former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili forced the Ministry of Finance to sign the contract that contains a controversial clause stating that Lesotho’s property, including military hardware, would be seized in the event that the country fails to settle the debt (see How corruption and politics increased Lesotho's debt liabilty to China).
When complete, the 7-meter-wide double-lane road is expected to boost business in the Tsoelike constituency, shortening the driving time from Mpiti to Sehlabathebe from 4 hours to about 1.5 hours. The project is said to have created employment for at least 500 Basotho.
Construction began in December 2018. A few months later, the Thinyane family lost its son who died from severe injuries suffered from his head being nearly crushed by a 10-ton tipper truck tailgate. No one has been arrested over Thinyane’s death. Instead, a Chinese national reportedly responsible for the incident was hurriedly flown back to China.
CNQC has scores of Chinese male workers that came from China, for whom jobs were created in Lesotho. Most of these Chinese workers occupy supervisory positions, and local women working as flag ladies, cleaners or cooks have been subjected to sexual harassment by their Chinese supervisors.
Family, chief and colleague demand justice for dead son
A frail elderly woman sits in the living room of her house at Ha Matlali, Qacha’s Nek. The house is adjacent to the Mpiti to Sehlabathebe road currently being constructed by CNQC.
The woman, ‘Makhauoe Lesoli, is still visibly in pain more than two years after her son died of serious injuries he suffered when a CNQC truck tailgate swung and hit him on the back of his head and neck.
“Burying my son was very painful, the pain still remains fresh. I have lost body weight, nothing sits well with me now,” Mrs Lesoli said.
Thinyane Lesoli died a few hours after being admitted at Machabeng Hospital in Qacha’s Nek.
Narrating events that led to Thinyane’s death, Mrs Lesoli said her son got a job as an electrician at CNQC owing to his well-known competencies at Ha Matlali and other neighbouring villages in Qacha’s Nek.
However, Thinyane was forced to double both as an electrician and unskilled labourer unloading cement from a truck whose tailgate was not well protected for the safety of the employees.
In fact, Lesoli said the tailgate was only supported by a wooden plank which slipped, leaving the tailgate unsupported and flying in the air before forcibly landing on unsuspecting Thinyane’s head and neck.
“The doctor said his bones were badly injured,” Mrs Lesoli said.
With a heavy heart, Mrs Lesoli said she knew her son would not live to tell the tale because “the area where he was hit was too fragile”.
She said her husband suffered a minor stroke after receiving the news that Thinyane was dead, adding “we were all confused”.
“I am told that there were no safety officers at the time he died from those injuries.”
Thinyane’s colleague, Kabelo Masoru, said his dead colleague was not even wearing a safety helmet at the time he met his untimely death.
This is because the company did not provide employees with personal protective equipment like safety helmets. In fact, MNN was reliably informed that the company only engaged a Health and Safety Officer after Thinyane’s death.
“We worked under a vehicle wearing our own jackets because the company did not provide any protective clothing,” Masoru said.
Former Ha Matlali regent, Mampinane Masupha said following Lesoli’s death, CNQC moved swiftly to hire safety officers who also handled burial preparations as damage control.
“I knew that they rushed to hire a Safety Officer because after she was appointed, ‘M’e ‘Mabatho (Safety Officer) came here looking for a rental house,” said Chief Masupha.
Lesoli left behind a wife and an eight-year-old child.
More than two years after Thinyane’s death, no one has been held accountable for negligence or homicide.
This after CNQC hurriedly hired Thinyane’s wife to assist their human resource officer Tlhatlhosi Lekupa, who is also the deceased’s brother-in-law.
Chief Masupha accused the company of not handling the matter in a transparent manner, adding that the deceased’s wife was given a small change in compensation that could only cover funeral costs.
“A unionist told me that one of the Chinese said three ladies from the ministry of labour were bribed, with each getting M20,000 (US$1,300) to make sure that the company did not pay more to compensate the deceased’s family,” Chie Masupha said.
Mrs Lesoli also said: “The Chinese have not paid for Lesoli’s head. It was only insurance money that enabled us to bury him and the small money given to his wife. She can’t even raise the child with that money”.
Repeated efforts to have Thinyane’s wife engage a lawyer to demand justice for his death have not yielded any positive results.
“We requested his wife to engage a lawyer for us to get what we deserve but she keeps breaking her promises. At times I feel that she is between a rock and a hard place because she works with the Chinese and this case may get her fired.
“I am not happy that the Chinese have hired his wife, but as long as the child’s school fees are paid for…his child is in Grade 4, they are paying for his fees but there is no money”.
Widespread sexual harassment cases
A group of women accuse CNQC of covering up allegations of sexual harassment by Chinese male staffers.
MNN can reveal that any woman who dared turn down sexual advances or report those to the Human Resource office has been fired under questionable circumstances.
According to Chief Masupha, some ladies are kept at the Chinese camp and prevented from going home.
“Others come home on month ends but these ladies don’t come…only grown-up girls and unmarried women stay in the camp while others commute every day.”
20-year-old Lisemelo Moreki is one of those ladies who were denied permission to go home. In fact, Moreki was told right from the beginning that she would stay in camp while a fellow elderly and married woman was told to commute every day.
Moreki was later dismissed by the CNQC for alleged failure to take instructions from her bosses. The instructions, according to Moreki, were sexual demands by her Chinese bosses.
The Ha Mavuka, Sehlaba-Thebe resident said during her time at work, she resided within the Chinese camp adjacent to the Ramatseliso border post.
“I was ill-treated,” Moreki said, adding that she stayed alone in a room allocated to her by CNQC.
“He (Chinese boss) would harshly knock on my door at night, saying that I must hurry to open it. He would say “quicker, quicker” and I would say “me washer” to convey a message that I was taking a bath but he did not give up and insisted I open the door.
“I suspected he wanted to have sex with me because girls who worked there before me told me about their sex stories with the Chinese,” she said.
Not opening the door at night did not protect Moreki from sexual harassment by her male Chinese bosses.
“There is another Chinese man who fondled my breasts, asking me if they were “good-a” and saying that my butt was in good shape. In another incident, he wanted to touch my breasts in exchange for an orange. I lived in fear while I was working with the Chinese. Sometimes I sneak out to sleep in the village for fear of being harassed at night,” a soft-spoken Moreki said firmly.
She quickly reported the matter to the Human Resource Officer, only identified as Mr Senate.
“He (alleged sexual preditor) fumed with anger when he was confronted by another Chinese about his conduct towards me. In retaliation, he started to punish me. At times I would be instructed to sweep the snowy surroundings when it was snowing and freezing. He ultimately dismissed me, claiming that I defied his instructions,” Moreki said.
Prior to joining CNQC, Moreki had heard stories of sexual harassment from her peers. The girls told Moreki and others that they received knocks at night and “unlike me, they opened as they were instructed to leave their room unlocked all the time. This would enable the Chinese man to freely enter the room and harass them”.
“One of those girls told us that upon her arrival, the Chinese man typed on his phone that he wanted to have sex with her in exchange for money. At times he would touch her private parts and she stopped him. This is the Chinese man who works in the kitchen,” Moreki said.
Another victim, Kekeletso Mothebesoana refused to narrate her ordeal.
Instead, Mothebesoana demanded to know where the MNN crew got her story, without rejecting allegations that she was sexually harassed.
“Where did you get this story? I want to keep my job. My story was the worst”, she said, before turning down the interview.
This is after her colleagues told this publication that she was lured into a storeroom by a Chinese man. Upon arrival, she found the man with pants down.
“The Chinese showed his manhood to Keke (Mothebesoana) asking her if it (penis) was “good-a or no good-a” while offering her money,” said one of her trusted colleagues.
Just like Moreki, Mothebesoana later lost her job for refusing to have sex with her Chinese boss.
She now works for another Chinese owned company, Founder Construction, sub-contracted by CNQC on the same road.
CNQC’s local human resource official who talked to MNN on condition of anonymity admitted that some Chinese had romantic relations with some of their female staff, and “some of them use these relations to find jobs for their friends and relatives”.
Startling was a case of a 21-year-old lady, one Lisebo, who works for the company as a cleaner. Lisebo has a child with an older Chinese man, who according to Lisebo is in his 40s.
Chief Masupha said, “I have learned the father was made to leave this place and is no longer here” .
Hurriedly flying Chinese nationals back to China immediately after the emergence of a scandal is the norm at CNQC while buying the victim’s silence.
“She [Lisebo] continues to work for the company as a cleaner. I have been told the Chinese (CNQC) are still supporting the child but the issue is what is going to happen when they complete their project and leave?”
Construction, Mining and Quarrying and Allied Workers Union Secretary General Robert Mokhahlane said he first learned of the sexual harassment and assault suffered by the female workers from one of the Human Resource Officers, Tlhatlhosi Lekupa. Lekupa refused to give an interview with MNN.
Mokhahlane said Lekupa confided in him that he was troubled that female workers were ostracised and fired for refusing to enter into sexual relations with their Chinese supervisors. He added these incidents of sexual abuse of women at CNQC has led to one of the cleaners (Lisebo) bearing a child with one Chinese supervisor.
Mokhahlane said he followed-up the matter with the workers who confirmed their frustrations which he reported to the police. The police confirmed that there is nothing tangible that the workers willingly provided to them to show sexual harassment and assault had taken place.
Mokhahlane argued that CNQC and many Chinese companies, whether in the textile and garments sector or construction, have much impunity on their contravening section 200 on Sexual harassment of the Labour Code Order of 1992, and other Lesotho laws.
He said the Labour Code Order of 1992 provides that “Any person who offers employment or who threatens dismissal or who threatens the imposition of any other penalty against another person in the course of employment as a means of obtaining sexual favours or who harasses workers sexually shall commit an unfair labour practice”.
But Mokhahlane said that seeing the impunity with which the Chinese treat their victims, who do not report sexual harassment and assault cases for fear of losing their jobs; he reported these women’s plight to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that has committed to assist.
But Lisebo remains unbothered, saying she is still communicating with the father of her infant child, adding “he promised to fetch me and the child after receiving his funds from CNQC”.
Lisebo believed her Chinese lover’s stories and hoped to be in China one day. Many other women still under CNQC employ do not want to talk about their experiences as they are desperate to keep their jobs.
Chief Masupha said she also received reports about the Chinese harassing their workers sexually.
“Chinese asked some staff ladies to bring them village girls to feed their sexual desires and they refused. They were then made to deliver what those village girls would give to the Chinese. Those who refuse get fired.
“There is a girl who reported to me that she was fired for refusing to sleep with a Chinese person. The perpetrator was returned to China after I intervened and the lady was reinstated to her job and did not want to pursue the case further,” Masupha said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Mosotho Human Resource official told MNN that CNQC controlled the movements of women handling the Chinese food to ensure that they do not infect their Chinese bosses with Covid-19.
“The Chinese knew how deadly Covid-19 was, my boss also disclosed that any Chinese company which would register a Chinese Covid-19-related death, would be cancelled (deregistered) in China,” said the official.
But Moreki argues otherwise.
“That reasoning does not hold water because we worked with many men who interacted with the Chinese on a daily basis on the campus. I wondered why they were not ordered to stay on the campus or was Covid-19 infecting only women, particularly my age? I honestly did not understand their reasoning,” Moreki said.
The CNQC Human Resource official also defended the Chinese, denying that the Chinese were having sex with their staff saying: “I know how it is to work in a male-dominated environment for women, especially those in lower ranks.”
“These men can create an atmosphere in which women can only feel safe under their shield. We know how to create that and that is how women end up in romantic relations with us. In response, I created a platform for them to report such incidents either to myself or my assistants who are also women”.
Arbitrary arrests and dismissals
MNN has learnt that CNQC works closely with the police and military in Qacha’s Nek to suppress workers who protested for better wages and working conditions.
Kabelo Masoru of Ha Matlali worked for CNQC from January 5 2019 to May 13 2021 when he was dismissed for being part of a group of workers who stood up for their rights and protested against low wages.
As a mechanic, Masoru started his job by earning M3,600 ($288) while a flag lady, ‘Maphello Mile earned M2,309 ($146) per month.
“We downed tools and embarked on a peaceful protest…we gathered near the camp. The Human Resource Officer Tlhatlhosi Lekupa came to us saying the company was giving us a last chance to stop the strike or face dismissal,” Masoro said, adding that they went on with the strike until they were dispersed by the police, arguing that the workers violated Covid-19 regulations.
Lekupa refused to comment on any work-related matters.
With no understanding of how to acquire a police permit to hold a protest match, Masoru said the workers returned to the camp on the following day with a letter from their village chief “allowing us to gather near the Chinese camp”. The law gives the power to issue such permits to the police.
“On that day, the police did not come but on the second day, they arrived with heavily armed soldiers. It was about six soldiers and ten police officers. We learned that the company lied to them saying that workers were burning down the camp.
“Upon their (soldiers and police) arrival, they told some of the workers that they were told by the company that the workers were burning down the camp. Having confirmed that they were sold a lie, they wanted us to leave the place dispersed by shooting and we ran for protection.”
About eight workers including our shop steward and Robert Mokhahlane, the secretary general of Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers Union were arrested and released after about three days, charged with violation of Covid-19 regulations. Mokhohlane said the case was on December 9 2021 by was postponed to May 2022.
Masoru said 75 workers were eventually fired and Mokhohlane helped them lodge a case of unfair dismissal which will be heard by the Qacha’s Nek Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution in February 2023.