“A total of 5 432 companies received funding amounting to P139 786 942, under the COVID-19 wage subsidy. The subsidy covered salaries and company operations,” said President Mokgweetsi Masisi in his state-of-the-nation address, which marks the beginning of the parliamentary year. He added that as a result of this and other interventions, the government saved over 1000 jobs in the industry.
The figures are accurate but there is one that the president very conveniently left out: that of companies that obtained money from the fund but never passed it on to their employees. All told, some 870 did and among them are those in the tourism sector. Resultantly, the Botswana Unified Revenue Services recovered the money from some companies and reported others to the Botswana Police Service for investigation and possible criminal prosecution, as the Head of Public Relations in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Fenny Letshwiti, told Sunday Standard earlier this year. From him, we further learnt that companies that applied for the subsidy signed an undertaking, which amongst other things, compelled them to pay the claimed subsidy “wholly” to beneficiary employees.
However, we learn from sources at the same Ministry that legally, the agreement was not water-tight. That means that it would be difficult for the government to prosecute the supposed culprits. Identifying culprits is also problematic in that there are no processes through which the government dealt directly with the would-be beneficiaries. The fund was largely operated on an honour system, meaning that the government relied on the honesty of companies that claimed the money on behalf of their employees. Those that were found to have acted dishonestly were reported to BURS by employees whose wages had been withheld. Some employees whose money was withheld quit their jobs as a result and never took the matter up with BURS. The latter means that many more companies didn’t pass on the money to their employees. Contrary to presidential moratorium on retrenchment, other companies claimed money for employees that they had already retrenched.
Masisi’s definition of “job” also fails to meet its most basic and common meaning: a transactional relationship between an employer and employee. Making a case for the first extension of the state-of-emergency (SoE), the president cited the prohibition of retrenchments and dismissal of employees as one of the “achievements” of the SoE. However, this was how this achievement looked like: junior staff at some hotels worked on a rotational basis and even then, were only paid for days worked. Some didn’t work for up to three months, meaning that they didn’t get paid for that long. Senior staff also got paid for days worked in a month but at one premier hotel in Gaborone, such days steadily decreased from 10 to five to three days. Even worse, heads of department and their assistants at the hotel were told that they wouldn’t be getting paid for some months because the hotel had no money. Ultimately, the SoE provision on retrenchment kept those employees on the establishment register but not on the payroll.