Sunday, September 27, 2020

Government snubs lecturers union

Tertiary education lecturers have been stripped of their collective bargaining power because government is refusing to recognize their union ÔÇô the Trainers and Allied Workers Union (TAWU, formerly ABOTEL).

The Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM) insists that TAWU does not have the right to bargain on behalf of lecturers because its membership falls short of the 33, 3% employees of the employer threshold.
A DPSM letter to TAWU announcing the denial of recognition, dated July 25, 2008 titled, “Follow-up on Application for Recognition-TAWU,” reads in part: “Following the Attorney General Chambers response on the matter, DPSM maintains that the phrase ‘employees of the employer’ in the context of the public service, refers to all public officers who are governed by the Public Service Act.”

Despite DPSM’s correspondence, Allan Keitseng, TAWU President, stated that as far as he is aware, the matter is currently before the Commissioner of Labour and that both parties have to complete the process.

DPSM Deputy Director, Pearl Matome concurs that DPSM’s view is that the matter is not finished. Due to her busy schedule, Matome could not answer the question of why it was necessary to write a letter of position to TAWU that merely repeats DPSM’s previous position without giving the Union a copy of the AGC interpretation. Matome stated that she is not in a position to comment on whether the letter is on the basis of the AGC interpretation and that it is up to the Union to take further action.

Information passed to the Sunday Standard reveals that the Union lodged a dispute with the Commissioner of Labour and the two parties went for mediation hearing on 3rd March. At that hearing, it became apparent that trouble lies in the interpretation of law. Management and the union then agreed with the mediator’s suggestion to hold discussions to reduce differences. The first meeting was on 20th March at which the Union requested for a break-down of employees figures. Both parties also agreed to jointly seek for legal interpretation, with a view to finding a resolution to the dispute.

According to the Union, the efforts of jointly seeking interpretation were conceived within and not outside the framework of mediation, which is why even though the Union preferred that both parties approach the Industrial Court for interpretation, they conceded to DPSM’s suggestion of the AGC on the understanding that “it would be a joint effort”. The Union was, therefore, shocked to receive a letter informing them of DPSM’s position.

In addition, it had been agreed that at the next meeting on 30th June, Management would bring with them figures requested, including staff establishment of the entire public service and a breakdown of employment categories in the country’s government training institutions which form TAWU’s organizing constituency. A according to Keitseng, the idea of figures was “so as to be able to determine who has been included and how other Unions obtained their recognition so that we could see how we fall short of the required figures.”

The figures brought, according to TAWU official, were mixed up and could not distinguish between administrative, academic and contract employees in the case of training institutions or not segregated to show contract employees from permanent and pensionable (P&Ps) on the part of Central Government Establishment. “This is despite the fact that they knew that their main contention was premised on figures whereas our position was based on the status of employment.”

Moreover, DPSM did not furnish the Union with a copy of AGC’s interpretation at the June meeting, save for an announcement that the response was being studied by senior management. Hardly a month after being told that the AGC interpretation was still being studied by senior management, the contents of which remain unknown to the Union leadership; TAWU got the letter that reiterates DPSM position without quoting any text of the AGC interpretation. In TAWU’s view, this “exposes government to litigation and is tantamount to negotiating in bad faith”.

The gist of the matter, it appears, lies in the parties’ interpretation of the phrase ‘employees of the employer’ of which section 48(1) of the Trade Unions and Employers’ Organization Act states that a trade union can be recognized only if it represents a third of the employees of the employer.
According to DPSM’s line of reasoning, “The Membership of TAWU does not represent 1/3 of the employees in the public service…Recognition in terms of this provisions is based on the employees of the public service and not employees of the employer in a particular trade or industry.”

The academics’ Union on the other hand contends that by virtue of their declared aims and objectives, on the basis of which they were registered by the Registrar of Trade Unions, they have a specific constituency to organize and bargain for and cannot be forced to extend their mandate by the employer.

Commenting on the issue, Gadzani Mhotsha, Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) Secretary General, said: “Unless Government seeks to impose trade union monopoly on employees, she must recognize that ILO Convention 87 provides for pluralism and freedom of association.” It appears TAWU’s case will test whether specific groups of public service employees such as nurses could have bargaining rights.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.