Sunday, September 20, 2020

Government’s rush to unionize backfires

Botswana’s rushed implementation of the unionization of the public service before the requisite environment and infrastructure had been assured is beginning to backfire, and Government continue to disregard international labour standards (ILS) best practice in labour relations.

This has led to political interference in the administration of labour relations. Examples are cited to affirm the concern.

A mid-term evaluation report of the ILO-Swiss project on the promotion of conflict management in Southern Africa and the development of enterprise based competitiveness has fingered Botswana for this indulgence.

The report reads in part that “the legal reform was promulgated, albeit, prematurely, before the necessary institutional arrangements were in place,” to the extent that the project had to shift its focus towards supporting implementation.

Pearl Matorne, Deputy Director, Directorate of Public Service Management resented the ILO feedback. She says ‘it is not true that government was not ready for unionization.”
Matome’s denial notwithstanding, a body of evidence is presented to suggest otherwise.

For example, although Botswana ratified the ILO conventions no 87, 98, 151 as far back as 1997, which conventions confer on public officers the right to join trade unions and to bargain collectively with the employer, none of the public service unions has so far signed a collective bargaining agreement with the employer.( Government) .

In addition some unions were issued with recognition letters prematurely on the basis of existing legislation, despite the absence of any framework to regulate the relationship between the employer and the employees union.
According to an official of the BFTU, who declined to be mentioned by name, it is surprising that a different criterion is peddled to deny other unions the same status.

He cites the Tertiary Trainers and Allied workers Union (TAW) as an example TAWU is currently engaged in mediation with the DPSM over the issue of being denied recognition on the basis of what it calls questionable grounds.
It is purported that the parties differ over interpretation of the term “employees of the employer” as used in the Trade Union and Employers Organization Act and therefore the context in which 1/3 applies as a threshold.

TAWU’S contention according to the union’s president, Allan Keitseng is that they are seeking recognition for a definite and sector specific category of employees. “We are not interested in the broader public service, since we are targeting a specific constituency for which our constitution was registered with the registrar of Trade Union and Employers Organizations.”

Matome on the other had maintains through a letter written to the Union, that employees of the employer refers to the whole public service and that against that background TAWU is numerically insignificant to quality for recognition.

However information reaching the Sunday standard reveals that the DPSM in its dealing with the issue of TAWU’s recognition may be acting against the legal advice offered to them by the office of the Attorney General
The AG’s advice may have been premised on the point of view that employees’ right to freedom of Association and Protection of the right to organize should not be circumvented by Government’s failure to align or clarify that particular section of the Law with public service Unionization.

Further more it is feared that in the event that TAWU looses the matter before the mediator, professionals such as nurses who are known to be intent on unionizing and other categories aspiring to unionize along their professional or sector specific interests might want to join the fray to demand their rights.
Another issue of contention according to the FRIEDRICK FBERT FOUNDATION Country Report 2008 on Trade Unions in Botswana, concerns the definition of management in public service sector. In terms of section 14 (3) a, b, c, of the Trade Disputes Act stipulates a general definition of “member of management” is stipulated.

Evidence drawn from interviews with some public service employees pointed to the existence of a considerable number of “members of management” in government being card carrying members of Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU).

“Not only does this raise the issue of conflict of interest in terms of disputes resolution and collective bargaining” said one public service employee. She says, it becoming apparent that there is no clarity as to who really constitutes management in government, especially after changes effected in the labour laws to facilitate unionization.

‘Most trade unionists also contend that in order to promote independence and instill a sense of credibility,’ there needs to have an independent commission rather than having the labour Commissioner to deal with matters of dispute resolution.

This is true, especially in the case of public service employees, they argue, “given the fact that the present salary scale of the commissioner, being far too inferior to the Permanent secretary to the President, who is the head of the public service, cannot by any means be independent.”

Trade unionists and labour analysts also decry the present tripartite arrangement through the labour advisory board as being very restrictive and almost ineffective. The Friedrick Ebert Foundation submits that, ‘The current tripartite and social dialogue arrangement in Botswana that relegates trade unions to an advisory role completely dis-empowers the workers from effectively participating in matters that affect their well being.”
It is feared that the situation whereby the Minister is left to have the final word on matters that involve the tripartite social partners, has the potential to translate into political interference.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.