Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Eradicating poverty and protecting employees from exploitation

To some Batswana, fate has bequeathed little more than a bagful of bones and a bowlful of dust. As late as the beginning of this month when finance minister Kenneth Matambo presented the budget speech, the government reiterated its plans to put flesh on those bones and replace the dust with agricultural produce from the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agricultural Development (ISIPAAD).

However, as the case of a former Gaborone Hotel (GH) employee shows, not all employers are marching in lockstep with the government in as far as economic empowerment goes. The Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs itself could not immediately say how it plans to ensure that workers are not exploited within the context of the poverty eradication framework.

Thatayaone Makwati, a former waitress at GH, was fired because her department manager was unhappy with service that he personally got from her. With this level of personal involvement in the matter, the manager did not recuse himself from the disciplinary process but actually got to fire Makwati. The dismissal letter says that she had ‘proved to be untrainable.’ Makwati’s counter claim is that all along the manager, a Zimbabwean national, had been captious and tetchy with her.

The training in question is contentious. Makwati says that she was never put through any structured training programme. According to her, the closest she came to being trained was when, on a slow day, she and other waitresses were stir-fried on basic waitressing fundamentals for some 30 minutes.
What position she held is another matter. While the dismissal letter identifies her as a ‘trainee waiter’ who had ‘not been offered a full time job yet’, Makwati herself says that she signed a contract that said nothing about being a trainee. The letter is headlined ‘Termination of Employment’ which suggests that she was a full-time employee. Upon leaving, she was given a terminal package that includes payment for leave days.

Contrary to what the law prescribes, Makwati was not given a hearing but was just asked to return hotel property and leave. However, even when a hearing is held, employees are routinely not advised to bring a third party.

The extent to which GH employees can be professionally empowered seems limited. During the last festive season, the bar manager beat up a drunk customer in front of other customers and his juniors. Granted, the customer had touched a raw nerve by repeatedly calling the manager, who is Hindu, by random Muslim names but the violence fell outside what is legal and ethical.

While this is a specific case about one hotel, it tells a much bigger story: rampant, nationwide, poverty-inducing exploitation of workers that the department of labour seems helpless against. Across the country Batswana who are striving for genuinely human existence have plenty of blisters (and little else in terms of material possessions) to show for their labours.

Some of the exploitation is heavily salted with inhumane treatment of workers. On one or two occasions, BONELA has gone to the High Court to defend the human and economic rights of people fired simply because they are HIV positive. An employer in Francistown is said to have ordered an employee to flush the toilet after he used it. Another in Gaborone lured a female employee into the storeroom where he asked her to perform fellatio on him.

Upon recognition of the fact that economic rights are a fundamental dimension of citizenship, the government has embarked on an ambitious exercise to quarantine and eliminate remaining pockets of poverty. President Ian Khama himself launched this initiative in Mahalapye last year.

There are two ways of looking at this issue. One is that it is wildly ambitious and suffers from the constraint of historical fact: no country in the world has ever successfully eradicated poverty. From another angle, a government that does not damn itself with low expectations seems to have about the right approach to problem-solving.

However, the full extent of how, in practical terms, this initiative is both systematic and system-wide is yet unclear. As of this writing, Slumber Tsogwane, the Social Services committee of Parliament, did not see any link between the mandate of his committee and the poverty eradication drive.

“The committee has nothing to do with poverty eradication,” he said when asked how his committee would assist in this initiative.

One of the responsibilities of this committee is to consider and report to parliament issues relating to labour. Tsogwane suggested that the ministry of labour and home affairs would be best suited to address the issue.

A month ago, the ministry of labour and home affairs was asked to state how it would fight worker exploitation within the framework of the poverty eradication. The response never came. The ministry has inadequate regulatory capacity and the result is that labour offices across the country are swamped with unresolved labour disputes, some employers ignore rulings and on an almost daily basis, there are stories in newspapers about worker exploitation. Some of the cases end up at the Industrial Court but the pace at which they are disposed of is painfully slow.

Against such scenario, the UNDP’s Initiative on Legal Empowerment of the Poor recommends that efforts to legally empower the poor should focus “on the underlying incentive structures as well as the capacity of the judiciary and state institutions necessary to make the law work for the poor.”
Gadzani Mhotsha of the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions concurs with the view that some of the poverty that occurs in Botswana is a direct result of workers being exploited.

“In fact this is what we have been saying all along. Our belief is that decent jobs are a way out of poverty,” he says.

That is the position – at a least rhetorical level – even for Bretton Woods institutions. Two days after Matambo’s speech to parliament, the 49th session of the UN Commission for Social Development convened in New York with the priority theme of poverty eradication. The International Trade Union Confederation urged UN member states to highlight the importance of decent work and social protection to achieve that goal.

“The Commission must focus on employment creation and decent work as the fundamentals for eradicating poverty,” stated ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

The background report of Ban-Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General stressed that “adequately remunerated jobs provide income security, access to social protection, better health and educational status and, ultimately, a way out of poverty.”

The World Bank (WB) has worked with trade unions in poverty reduction initiatives and has made the economic case for labour standards as a means of reducing poverty. A WB-commissioned study has concluded that core labour standards support substantive standards such as minimum wages, obligations to provide decent and safe working conditions, and formal systems of social insurance and social protection.

The answer to the question of whether the bones and the dust could ever be consigned to the dustbin of economic history if the regulatory capacity of the ministry of labour is not enhanced, is quite obvious. But there may be opportunity yet.

Nicholas Motiki of the Botswana Hotel Travel, Tourism Union suggests that the government should trouble-shoot through labour laws to weed out provisions that are not employee-friendly. In a recent strike that his Union embarked on, he came to discover that while the law forbids employers from replacing employees during the course of a strike, it compels the latter to notify employers of intent to strike 48 hours before they do. He says Cresta hotels management took advantage of this loophole by engaging replacement labour within the 48 hours.

“That is what the problem is: the law says labour can be replaced before and not during the strike,” Motiki says.

On the whole, Mhotsha does not see a sea change with regard to effort to eradicate poverty. He says that some employers still luxuriate in cavalier disregard for the law and show no evidence of leaning towards the fulfilment of the poverty eradication vision. He also laments that enforcement of the law is still weak.

“The department of labour still experiences shortage of staff, resources and expertise to deal with some complex disputes. Over the years, the ministry of labour has consistently been among ministries with the lowest allocations. This impairs the ministry’s ability to execute its mandate,” Mhotsha says.

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