Government this week decided to de-recognise the five largest public sector unions, touching off a massive legal battle.
The five public sector unions, the Botswana Public Employees Union, the Botswana Secondary School Teachers Union, the Botswana Teachers Union and the Manual Workers Union on Friday filed an urgent application at the High Court seeking a declaration that government’s decision is unlawful and of no effect.
Speaking to The Sunday Standard on Friday, BOPEU President, Andrew Motsamai, said the respondents, the Director of Public Service Management and the Attorney General, have also been served.
The standoff comes in the wake of the implementation of the new Public Service Act, which effectively creates one employer for the public service. The consolidation of the public service under one umbrella and the establishment of one employer for the entire public service had resulted in each of the public sector unions having a smaller portion of the total workforce.
DPSM statistics show that there are around 110 000 public servants, such that none of the public sector unions represent one third of the total work force, which is the statutory requirement for recognition as per the Trade Union and Employers Organizations Act and the Trades and Disputes Act.
“However the statutory threshold for recognition in terms of the new act is one third of the employees who qualify to be members of the union,” argues the unions in their founding affidavit.
They maintain that they had made agreements with government under the old public service act, and such agreements are still valid today. They say government had until June 28 recognized and acknowledged the enforceability of these agreements, and has held several meetings with them as representatives of the employees.
“Even through circulars, DPSM acknowledged the applicants as collective bargaining agents for their respective members,” said Motsamai.
After the implementation of the new act on May1, the unions wrote government reminding her of the need to finalize the constitution of the Public Service Bargaining Council. The unions say that they finally met with DPSM on June 28 to discuss the establishment of the bargaining council. At the meeting, they were taken aback when government announced that she had taken a decision to withdraw their recognition.
Motsamai says the decision was an apparent ambush as government never indicated that she was considering withdrawing recognition of the public sector unions.
“These are obviously delaying tactics by government. It is simply a ruse to delay the establishment of the bargaining council,” said Johnson Motshwarakgole, Organizing Secretary of Manual Workers Union.
“The argument about DPSM not meeting the threshold for recognition is fallacious because DPSM is fully aware of the fact that there is procedure to be followed prior to withdrawing the recognition. This procedure is laid down in Section 33 of the Trade and Disputes Act as well as the termination clauses in the recognition agreements,” said the unions.
They said their loss of recognition rights has resulted in their loss of organization rights, like the right to administer check off facilities on their behalf.
“The livelihood of any labour movement is the monthly subscription it receives from its members. Without check off facilities, the unions will collapse, and their financial ruin will precipitate their dissolution,” they said.
They argued that de-recognition of the public sector unions has resulted in the 90 000 strong membership that they enjoy in the public service without workers representation.
“DPSM is now free to make changes to terms and conditions of employment without reference to the five largest trade unions in the country,” they said.
Government has been unhappy with the unions, following their decision to engage in active politics.