The outcome of a possible class-action lawsuit that is only now taking shape could open floodgates (as well as vaults at the Bank of Botswana) as 30 former part-time employees of the Department of Information Services (DIS) claim P1.8 million in unpaid wages.
Courtesy of a mis-worded contract of service, DIS legally bound itself to pay young people enrolled in its Youth Freelancers Programme for stories and pictures “submitted” – and not “published” as is the norm internationally. However, the accounts department applied the norm and there was no complaint from the freelancers until one was alerted by a DIS employee. The latter apparently had an axe to grind with the person responsible for the contract. With the one freelancer having been paid and upon a lawyer’s intervention, the 30 ex-freelancers are also demanding that they be paid as well. The first name on the list is that of Juliah Kotlhao and in line with judicial norm, the matter becomes Juliah Kotlhao & Others. Among Others is the spokesperson of the Botswana Patriotic Front and former Big Brother Africa contestant, Justice Motlhabani, who holds a journalism degree from the University of Botswana.
Through their lawyers, Moahi Attorneys, the ex-freelancers served the Attorney General with a statutory notice to sue this past Wednesday. Disclosing a bank account number, the lawyers demand payment by the end of this month, “failing which we hold even firmer instructions to approach the courts of law for an appropriate remedy.” With an under-stated psychiatric bent, the last but one paragraph of the statutory notice gives very clear indication what remedy that would be.
“We hope and trust that sanity shall prevail and contents of this letter given effect to as to avoid litigation which is not only cumbersome but time-consuming but equally expensive,” the notice reads.
The latest development is a direct result of engagement between the two parties having come to naught. After learning about the payout to one of their own, some ex-freelancers approached DIS to ask for their own back pay but were rebuffed. What would also have come to naught is effort by the Francistown West MP, Ignatius Moswaane, to get DIS to pay up.
A positive outcome at the High Court for the ex-freelancers would spell further doom for DIS because many more ex-freelancers, who are not part of the current legal action, signed the same contract but were paid for items published, not submitted.
Otherwise well-intentioned and designed to both deal with youth unemployment and provide a required service, the Youth Freelancer Programme was started in 2010 under the administration of former President Ian Khama. The programme, which has now been stopped, employed secondary school (Form 3 and Form 5) leavers as well as graduates across the country to provide journalistic services. It was administered by DIS, whose offices are at the Mass Media Complex in Gaborone. Until the intervention of the Attorney General Chamber’s in 2016, DIS had been engaging youth freelance reporters (about 200 a year on a year’s contract) whom it paid for work published and not work submitted as its own contract explicitly stated.