Botswana’s campaign to attract foreign investors and diversify the economy away from diamonds has opened the country’s door to sweatshops and human trafficking ÔÇô Sunday Standard investigations have revealed.
Investigations on Bolux Milling, the Ramotswa-based manufacturers of Bakers biscuits, Macaroni, Spaghetti and bread revealed how workers are usually sent searching for fingers severed from hands of unfortunate workers.
Tirelo Rathube, like many of the thousands of workers who are powering Botswana’s fledgling manufacturing industry, spent his days from dusk to dawn on the Bolux biscuit manufacturing factory floor without safety gear.
But – just as typically – the 27-year-old was last year wheeled out of the factory on a stretcher, his scull cracked open by an iron rod, victim of a labour market so loosely regulated that employers ignore safety regulations.
After months at Nyangabwe Hospital in Francistown, he finally rose from his bed, partially paralyzed and tottering on crutches.
Another colleague, who is referred to only as Lawrence, is confined to a wheel chair after breaking his spine in a freak factory floor accident.
Sunday Standard investigations turned up information revealing the filthy conditions and casual abuses that many of Botswana’s factory workers suffer and the gross illegality that many international recruitment agencies undertake in order to drive Botswana’s economic diversification campaign.
Interviews with representatives of labour unions, Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs officials and reports from the Industrial court revealed that the policing of health and safety regulations and employment law in this country lags behind the aggressive campaign to grow Botswana’s manufacturing industry. And unscrupulous investors are having a field day.
The Sunday Standard turned up further information that another company, Zheng Ming, which operated a sweatshop in Ramotswa, was part of an international trade in modern day slavery. Industrial Court Judge, Elijah Legwaila, would later rule that “it appears that Chinese nationals pay large sums of money to recruitment agencies who send them abroad with all sorts of promises and that some Chinese nationals even leave China with promises of work in developed countries and that by the time such people land at any destination they have neither the money nor the bargaining power to protect their rights.
“These Chinese nationals are then housed and fed in compounds at the pleasure of the employer. Their passports, air tickets, work and residence permits are retained by the employer.”
Legwaila was passing judgment in a case in which Bin Quin Lin, a Chinese national working for Zheng Ming Knitwear, was held in forced labour without pay. Chinese investors are the biggest investors in the textile industry which exports garments to America under the lucrative AGOA agreement.
By 2000 Chinese had already opened 176 textile shops in Botswana.
Botswana’s fledgling manufacturing industry is controlled by Chinese investors who have a stranglehold on the Botswana government. A confidential report sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seven years ago by the then Botswana Ambassador in China, Alfred Dube, suggests that the Botswana government is also worried about the influx of questionable Chinese investors. Botswana has, however, chosen to look the other way because “despite her own problems, China has offered generous assistance to Botswana in the form of concessional loans and scholarships,” said the confidential report.
The issue is so sensitive that when the report was tabled at the 1999 Conference of Botswana Heads of Missions, the page that addressed the issue ÔÇô page 14- was removed from the document.
The labour crisis in Botswana’s manufacturing industry is not helped by reports of Indians and Bangladeshi labour recruitment agencies that are trafficking cheap labour for Botswana factories.
More than a hundred suspects, including local Asian businessmen, police officers and labour consultants, were earlier this year investigated in a Diamond and Narcotics Squad (DNS) probe targeting a large-scale human trafficking network in Botswana.
Sunday Standard investigations turned up information that, because of its attractive economic performance, the drive to diversify the economy and the absence of anti-human trafficking legislation, Botswana has become an emerging destination and major staging area for the movement of illegal aliens to South Africa. The Botswana police first detected human trafficking from Pakistan and Bangladesh into Botswana two years ago. Around the same time, they also smashed a ring of Somali human trafficking brokers who were facilitating the smuggling of illegal immigrants from East Africa into Botswana and South Africa. This was confirmed by Assistant Commissioner of Police and Deputy Director Criminal Investigations Department, Mathews Maduwane.
He said some of the trafficked people “are employed by their own” in Botswana while others are sold to South Africans. The Botswana Police Service is currently working with their South African counterparts to break the smuggling ring.
While the country’s manufacturing sector’s growth figures shoot up in the wake of the diversification drive, the Department of Labour and Home Affairs and the workers unions have lagged behind. Ramotswa Labour Officer, Seabi Pilane, acknowledged that she was unable to make site visits to factories under her jurisdiction for inspection due to lack of adequate facilities, especially transport. She, however, referred The Sunday Standard to the Gaborone District Labour Office for details on labour inspections.
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