The Constitutional rights and civil liberties of workers in Botswana were in April 2020 suspended following a decision by Parliament to evoke state of public emergency as the last resort taken to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
While the Trade Disputes Act which provides for the right to strike and lockouts was suspended as part of the Covid-19 Regulations under the SOE, this has not deterred many workers across the country to fight for what they believe to be their rights.
This is after the realisation that after the suspension of Trade Disputes Act some employers in the country continue to enjoy bargaining power over desperate employees.
At the same time, the growing unemployment roll in the country has also resulted in many employers enjoying bargaining power over the desperate job seekers, resulting in low wages in the country’s labour sector.
Trade Unions in the country also agrees that the SOE regulation, which barred workers in Botswana to engage in an industrial strike has given room to some employers to subject their employees to what they describe as ‘abuse’.
BOFEPUSU’s deputy Secretary General – Ketlhalefile Motshwegwa says elimination of the Right to Strike as per the regulations of Emergency Powers Act is an attack on Convention 87 of Freedom of Association and Convention 98 of Protection of the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.
“This scenario of withdrawal of the right to strike tilt power in favour of the employer , the workers are powerless at a platform of work place social dialogue for they have been disarmed , the employer can do as she pleases, and even trample upon their rights and offer them poor conditions of service and welfare”, says Motshwegwa.
To date employees from atleast three companies – Kromberg & Schubert, GrandPalm and Avani Hotel based in the capital Gaborone have staged industrial actions within the past three months.
The most recent was held by Avani Hotel employees on Friday demanding that better working conditions.
“Ever since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the employer want to pay our members as little as 25-30 percent of their usual salaries. This is unacceptable”, said Executive Secretary – Botswana Commercial & General Workers Union – Joseph Paakane on Friday outside the multinational hotelier. Paakane said as union they are willing to sit down with Avani Hotel management to negotiate a better deal that could see both parties benefitting.
It has emerged that between April and July some Avani workers were paid through the money that was sourced from the government’s Covid 19 Relief Fund.
Detailed correspondences between the management of Avani Hotel, Commissioner of Labour and the employees seen by Sunday Standard has also shed light on the battle between the two parties.
According to one of the documents – a letter written to the Commissioner of Labour by Avani General Manager – Allan Clingham, the hotelier has, despite the Friday strike, vowed to pay its employees 25 percent of their usual salaries until when a new agreement with the Botswana Commercial & General Workers Union has been reached.
“We held a second Union/Management meeting on the 29th July 2020, where Avani management could not accede to the Union 100 percent salary demand due to current business levels which are still low, however management counter offered with a proposal which the Union had to look at and revert to management”, reads part of one of the letters to the Commissioner of Labour.
Another letter, which was sent to employees via electronic mail late Friday states that all the employees who were involved in the Friday strike, “Have been asked to go and cool off and management will convene a meeting with them on the 31st August 2020 at 10 am”. The letter also advised the employees who were not part of the strike to report to work.
Meanwhile Paakane accused the Hotel management of not being cooperative with the union. He said they have been attempting to divide the workers by making side offers to the some of them. However, Paakane indicated that, “We will consult with our members on the way forward, on whether we continue with this action or take which route”.
The Avani strike comes a time when new information shows that over 70 percent of the country’s workers earn less than P10,000.
Statistics Botswana’s labour force also illuminates the country’s falling wages – average pay in formal employment fell from last year’s P7,015 to P6,915 in the first quarter of the year. The average pay masks an even worrying larger figure, where 73.6 percent of workers earn below P10,000. Narrowing it even further, 55.8 percent of workers earn less than P4,000.
Most of the employees in formal employment (40.2 percent) who are earning P2,000 to P4,000, are working in service or sales roles.