Next month’s protest marches by members of the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) are raising some eyebrows within the trade union collective itself.
While Sunday Standard is unaware of corruption allegations against BOFEPUSU itself, some of its members are bemused by the irony of holding protest marches against corruption when the same problem is festering within member unions.
Union A has not been audited in years and some of its members believe that is the reason why one office holder came to mysteriously own “a lot of houses” (some put the figure at eight) in Gaborone.
“If you had no property in Gaborone before working at the union headquarters, where did you suddenly get the money to but those many houses within a short period of time?” queries a union member.
The office holder in question is said to be powerful enough to block the implementation of a national congress resolution that directed that an audit process should be undertaken. In part, the source of this power is bank account signatory authority. Union office holders have been known to wield a lot of power over committee members because they have access to millions of pula – union money. Even where personal interest is concerned, office holders use this financial power to gain political power.
In Union B, office holders allegedly awarded supply jobs whose values could be inflated by as high as more than 100 percent. This was done with the understanding that the office holders would be cut in after the union paid the suppliers – some of whom were elected officials of the opposition. Such jobs were typically not advertised. A former male office holder in this union is also reported to have abruptly ended a union meeting that was held at a Palapye hotel in the morning after a female delegate had turned down his amorous advances the previous night.
Union C has an office holder who is now so wealthy that he has more in common with the bourgeoisie than the workers he is supposed to represent. Most of the workers he represents cannot afford to send their children to elite private schools but he can.
Another dirty little secret of public service trade unions is that some of them are using their economic power in the same way that the government is. Under President Ian Khama, government advertising is awarded to loyal media houses and withheld from critical ones. Unions often have to fill this gap but are using their financial power in an unethical manner. One newspaper manager remembers having to beg an office holder in Union B for forgiveness after his paper was starved of advertising following the publication of a factual story that portrayed the union in bad light.
Unlike government departments which have stringent internal controls, are audited on a periodic basis and prone to the attention of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, public service trade unions are a safe distance away from such intense scrutiny. For this reason, this rot remains hidden from public view.
Trade unionism in the public service itself has created an elite cabal class within the labour movement that doesn’t have much in common with ordinary members. Some from this cabal end up managing commercial subsidiaries of unions despite the fact that they are unqualified for such responsibility.
A trade union source says that union members are not entirely helpless when it comes to the scrutiny of union funds. The Trade Union and Employers’ Organisation Act permits a percentage of members, usually about 10 percent, to call a special congress of their union to discuss any issue – which includes issues that union leaders may not want to put on the agenda of a congress. In addition, the law also allows an individual member to write to the union’s secretary general to request permission to inspect the union books as long as that member is in good standing.
“Union constitutions also usually have similar clauses but I doubt any member of any union has ever exercised such rights. That is partly because most members are not aware of such rights and also because of the power dynamics in unions,” says the source.
BOFEPUSU has announced that it plans to hold demonstrations across the country to protest corruption, notably the looting of the National Petroleum Fund.