Thursday, March 4, 2021

Aggrieved BCL workers seek Batshu’s help

The BCL mine was commissioned 41 years ago. Today, it defies logic that hundreds of miners at the country’s oldest underground mine are still under paid, work long
hours and live in squalid conditions.

The Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU) Selibe-Phikwe branch recently petitioned BCL board chairman, Dr Akolang Tombale, seeking his immediate intervention and remedial action.

The miners gave Dr Tombale, who is credited with turning around the fortunes of the embattled Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) 14 days to promptly attend to their grievances and offer long-term remedial solutions.

It is not only Dr Tombale who the aggrieved workers are looking at for immediate and long term solutions. The grievances were extended to Minerals, Energy and Water Resources Minister Kitso Mokaila as well as Labour and Home Affairs minister, Edwin Batshu.

Before the petition landed on the desks of the authorities for salvation, a blast at the mine last week killed one employee and left another one seriously injured.

The fatal incident amounted to a premonition by the miners who led a peaceful demonstration to enunciate their grievances.

The mine management has released a statement confirming the fatal incident in addition to assuring the general public that in terms of the Mining and Quarries Act, an investigation will be undertaken to ascertain the cause of the accident.

In an interview, Batshu promised to visit the mine and seek answers from management with regard to the issues raised.

“I haven’t seen the petition. Decent work relations should incorporate habitable living conditions. In this day and age, it is unjustifiable and legally wrong that employees are subject to indecent and inhabitable living conditions especially for a democratic country that has ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. If what you are enquiring on is what really obtains at the mine, I will definitely have visit the area and seeking answers.

The employees were right to petition their employer. If their grievances are genuine, it should raise alarm bells and the situation be attended to promptly. I will ask my officers to pass the petition to me as quickly as possible,” said Batshu.

BCL board chairperson Dr Tombale, who is former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources as well Kitso Mokaila could not be reached at the time of going to press.
However, a visit to the mine by this publication’s team brought to light horrible living conditions for the junior miners who live in crowded and inhabitable hostels in contrast to their principals who live lavish lives in wall fenced and electrified houses on the other side
of the township.

In the Area A hostels more than 100 workers live in small rooms that they are forced to share with their families.

To compound the matters, the mine that has been in operation for more than four decades has not constructed dining halls for the lowly paid workers, some of whom have built shacks around their small rooms to use for cooking facilities.

The bathrooms are equally in a dilapidated state. Some hostels do not even have separated bathing rooms for men and women.

An underground miner who joined BCL in 1984 but did not want to be identified for fear of victimization narrated a harrowing story of their squalid living conditions and those of their children.

“Just come and see the small room I live in. I have no choice but to share this little room with my wife and four school going children. This is kind of life that management is subjecting us to. There is nothing we can do as some of us are uneducated and not marketable to relocate for alternative employment opportunities. I have simply come to accept my fate. May be my sin is not to be educated as the educated are living in big houses on the other side of Tshekedi Road,” said the dejected miner.

He ushered our team to the so-called kitchen where some of them have been forced to buy two-plate electric stoves from where their wives prepare their meals from.

On what the union was doing to address their plight, he replied that although he is a member of the union, the union has not been very helpful either.

“All what they (union) know is collection of monthly subscription fees. This afternoon we are having five kilometer walk to petition the mine management. Only God knows whether these guys at the top will act. We have been petitioning them in the past but our situation is growing from bad to worse. May be these are the fruits of not being educated in this country,” said the miner who explained that when he watched the Marikana miners demonstrating for better wages and living conditions on his television, he shed tears because he understood their plight.

“What is happening in South Africa will happen here. These managers are sitting on a time bomb. We have been taken for granted for too long. The next generation of miners will not tolerate this kind of exploitation. We are too despondent. I have been working for the mine
since 1984 and I’m paid a paltry P1400. I understand the managers are earning as high as P200 000 per month while we labourers who extract the copper are paid peanuts,” explained miner who works as a winger.

He added that he does not have a contributory pension fund which will
cater for him upon retirement.

His plight is endured by many of his colleagues in silence.

In the petition, the BMWU Selibe-Phikwe branch demand call on general manager Daniel Mahupela and his lieutenants to be fired. Their unhappiness extends to Motsile Sibanda who they accuse of undermining them and boasting his academic qualifications during negotiations.

The union accuses the mine of awarding workers increment below
prevailing inflation rates.

“Ever since the decline in production and ultimately loss in revenue, we have seen insufficient salary increases at an average of 4.6 percent for the past three years including the purported offer of 4 percent by management for the current financial year.

These figures have been constantly below the inflation rate. Apart from salary increase, we continue staying in hostels which one may think they are used to accommodate pigs and not people. The current condition of these hostels is undesirable and unhealthy. Any manager could or company who purports to care for the welfare of his/its employees could have allowed in which these hostels are,” reads the petition in part.

The petitioners say it is hurting them that the mine continues to pay its employees paltry housing allowances of P388 when the market rate of a low cost house in the township is around P1400.

“We need a decent housing allowance and a decent pay to leave a decent
life. The mere minimum wage of P1400 paid by BCL is a slavery wage and
an insult to workers. We continue to be destitute after working for
more than 30 years under hard conditions of environment making profit
for the company but with no reward,” add the petitioners who demand a P5000 monthly salary.
The miners are unhappy that all of their grievances are never solved internally and are instead escalated to the Commissioner of Labour all the time.

They point an accusing finger at Sibanda for disregarding their grievances with impunity while boasting of his academic qualifications.

In its website under the Safety, Health and Environment Policy, BCL states performance as a priority in its business and promises to embrace the principle of good safety health and environmental practices.

However, the situation on the ground points to the contrary.

The 41-year-old mine consumes 20 percent of the country’s electricity output (43 percent of BPC)’s power generation. It is also a major consumer of Morupule coal.

While Batshu promises to investigate the workers’ grievances, it remains to be seen what Dr Tombale and Mokaila will do especially in an election year as opposition parties have lent their support to the plight of the workers.

During the handing of the petition, UDC secretary general and Botswana National Front spokesperson attended. Botswana Congress Party’s parliamentary candidate for Selibe-Phikwe West Dithapelo Keorapetse also added his voice in favour of the plight of the workers.

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