The atmosphere in the court room was thick with tension and anxiety at Gaborone’s Industrial Court (IC) last Thursday, as officials of both the Botswana Railways Amalgamated Workers union (BRAWU) and of the Management of BR were set to be legally advised as to whether the latter was obligated to negotiate with the former over redundancy packages for about 21 employees, whose future remains uncertain, after their functions were outsourced to a private company known as Ansaldo.
However, the matter could not be heard after lawyers for BR, Collins and Newman, convinced the IC the letter intended to notify them of the Union’s urgent application set for May 7, 2009 may have been directed to a wrong address, as they only learnt of it shortly before the stipulated time.
BRAWU, representing employees serving in the Signals and Telecommunications Division of BR, has cited what they described as “cold hearted and inhuman attitude” of management towards their members, saying they disregarded their welfare and took them lightly.
Adam Phetlhe, Secretary General of the BRAWU, intimated that during the consultation process, especially during the period when ANSALDO was installing the Signals and Telecommunications systems for BR across the country, their members were made to believe they won’t lose their jobs.
They were assured of that as they had expressed interest to opt for retrenchment packages, when a sizeable number of BR employees were laid off, to enhance efficiency and for economic considerations.
To prove this, minutes of a meeting held between Management and representatives of the employees dated 26th September 2005, reveal categorical positions adopted to the effect that even after completion of the system’s installation, employees’ jobs would remain secure, therefore, would not be laid off as their section was critical.
“This because BR would remain responsible for maintenance of the signalling and telecommunications equipment,” stated the memorandum of understating emanating from the meeting.
In addition, mention is made of a joint venture between BR and Ansaldo, of which employees were told that, as per Botswana’s Privatization Policy, “rationalization of the signals and telecommunications section was not an option.”
Thus, it was stated that on completing the then new signalling project, which Ansaldo was commissioned to do, ‘negotiations would be opened with the division employees to join a joint venture that would be established between them and Ansaldo.
Management’s conduct, however, showed no reference to all these promises, nor has any clear explanation been given to them as to where the joint venture idea ended.
All those assurances notwithstanding, information passed to the Sunday Standard reveals 12 of 21 affected employees received letters on 30th April, 2009 purporting to be offer letters for employment secured for them from Ansaldo by BR.
It was a requirement that invitees acknowledge their acceptance or otherwise of offers by 7th May 2009 and further, if they accepted offers, their contracts would be due to commence on 11th May 2009.
Phetlhe posited that since Ansaldo would be the new employer, employees would no longer have any legal basis to engage BR demanding redundancy packages; therefore Management is bound by the Collective Labour Agreement to go beyond just consulting but has to come up with redundancy packages proposals for both parties’ consideration.
He argues that BR’s initiative to secure jobs for part of their workforce cannot be construed as a favour, nor is it sufficient excuse for evading responsibility on the part of BR.
Moses Bagayi, BR’s Human Resources Manager, refused to comment on the issue, adding the Court would adjudicate.
“On account of this, we decided to approach the industrial Court for urgent interdiction of BR to order that they are obligated to engage with affected employees,” said BRAWU Secretary General.
As if to widen the latitude for the judge to favourably consider BR Attorneys’ request for postponement of the hearing, a letter dated 7th May 2009 (same day that the hearing was set to take off) from Ansaldo was released by Management officials present at the proceedings. The letter stated that BR employees who have been offered employment are allowed a further 14 days to respond to the offers.
Judge of the Industrial court, Justice Tapiwa Marumo, conceded that, given that both parties were agreeable on the proposal by Collins and Newman attorneys on behalf of their clients, the matter was set for 15th May 2009.
BR management is expected to file their counter affidavit on the 11th May 2009, whereas the replying affidavits from the union should be in by May 13, 2009.