Thursday, April 9, 2020

Labour pains

The buzz of machines grinds to a sudden stop. Power switches on the factory floor are flipped down. All hell breaks loose as workers are sent running helter skelter, searching for a human finger severed from the hand of an unfortunate worker.

This is a familiar scene at Bolux milling in Ramotswa. Conny Tladi, a statistic, stretches out his left hand and reveals a missing forefinger and a road map of deep cuts and hospital stitches. The 29-year-old machine minder quit his job last month after losing his forefinger in a factory floor accident. It was the last of three accidents that almost severed his arm. He has only P615.00 to show for compensation.

Not surprising. Even Conny would be the first to admit that his case would hardly register on the company accidents gross-o-meter. Another colleague, Rodger Nswazi, actually lost two fingers in a different accident. Even that was not considered a train smash. In fact, Conny has lost count of colleagues who have lost fingers in factory floor accidents.
The company has seen really bad cases. Tirelo Rathube, for example, was not so lucky. Like many of the thousands of workers who are powering Botswana’s fledgling manufacturing industry, Rathube spent his days from dusk to dawn on the Bolux biscuit manufacturing factory floor without safety gear.

But – just as typically – the 27-year-old was wheeled out of the factory on a stretcher, his scull cracked open by an iron rod, victim of a labour market so loosely regulated that employers ignore safety regulations.
After months at Nyangabwe Hospital in Francistown he finally rose from his bed, partially paralyzed and tottering on crutches.

Another colleague, who they refer to only as Lawrence, is confined to a wheel chair after breaking his spine in a freak factory floor accident.
Sunday Standard investigations have turned up information revealing the filthy conditions and casual abuses that far too many of Botswana’s factory workers suffer and the gross illegality that many international recruitment agencies undertake in order to drive Botswana’s economic diversification campaign.

Interviews with representatives of labour unions, Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs officials and reports from the Industrial court revealed that the policing of health and safety regulations and employment law in this country lags behind the aggressive campaign to grow Botswana’s manufacturing industry. And unscrupulous investors are having a field day.
In fact, this is the psychological profile of foreign investment as drawn up by workers union leaders:

Self-interested, manipulative, avowedly asocial, self-aggrandizing, unable to accept responsibility for its own actions or feel remorse – as a person, the foreign investor would probably qualify as a full-blown psychopath.
Sensationalist? Some traditional leaders, political leaders and industrial court judges do not think so. Among those who have spoken out against unscrupulous foreign investors is Bamalete Chief, Mosadi Seboko, who refers to Zheng Ming Knitwear as “the company that does not adhere to labour laws.”

Zheng Ming, who operated a sweatshop in Ramotswa, was part of an international trade in modern day slavery. Industrial Court Judge, Elijah Legwaila, would later rule that “it appears that Chinese nationals pay large sums of money to recruitment agencies who send them abroad with all sorts of promises and that some Chinese nationals even leave China with promises of work in developed countries and that by the time such people land at any destination they have neither the money nor the bargaining power to protect their rights.
“These Chinese nationals are then housed and fed in compounds at the pleasure of the employer. Their passports, air tickets, work and residence permits are retained by the employer.”

Legwaila was passing judgement in a case in which Bin Quin Lin, a Chinese national working for Zheng Ming Knittwear, was held in forced labour without pay. Chinese investors are the biggest investors in the textile industry which exports garments to America under the lucrative AGOA agreement.

By 2000, the Chinese had already opened 176 textile shops in Botswana. The Botswana Democratic Party MP, Keletso Rakhudu, says Botswana’s textile industry is the most problematic: “At the moment I am wrestling with one Chinese textile investor who has opened a sweatshop in my constituency. This is harmful trade, I do not subscribe to harmful trade. It does not add value to our economy, we should not sell our people for the American dollar,” says Rakhudu.

Rakhudu, Kgosi Seboko and a host of Botswana factory workers are, however, punching above their weight. The fledgling Botswana manufacturing industry is controlled by Chinese investors who seem to have a stranglehold on the Botswana government. A confidential report sent to ministry of foreign affairs seven years ago by the then Botswana Ambassador in China, Alfred Dube, suggests that Botswana government is also worried about the influx of questionable Chinese investors. Botswana, has, however, chosen to look the other way because “despite her own problems, China has offered generous assistance to Botswana in the form of concessional loans and scholarships,” said the confidential report.

The issue is so sensitive that when the report was tabled at the 1999 Conference of Botswana Heads of Missions, the page that addressed the issue ÔÇô page 14- was removed from the document.

The labour crisis in Botswana’s manufacturing industry is not helped by reports of Indians and Bangladeshi labour recruitment agencies that are trafficking cheap labour for Botswana factories.

More than a hundred suspects, including local Asian businessmen, police officers and labour consultants, were earlier this year investigated in a Diamond and Narcotics Squad (DNS) probe targeting a large-scale human trafficking network in Botswana.

The suspects were believed to be part of an organized smuggling ring that has been trafficking illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan into Botswana.

The police operation is understood to have broken a number of organized cells which had been using Botswana as a destination and transit for trafficked persons. Assistant Commissioner of Police and Deputy Director Criminal Investigations Department, Mathews Maduwane, confirmed interviewing close to 100 suspects including police officers, labour consultants, Asian businessmen some of whom are Botswana citizens who trafficked illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Sunday Standard investigations turned up information that because of its attractive economic performance, unbridled drive to diversify the economy and absence of anti-human trafficking legislation, Botswana has become an emerging destination and major staging area for the movement of illegal aliens to South Africa. The Botswana police first detected human trafficking from Pakistan and Bangladesh into Botswana two years ago. Around the same time, they also smashed a ring of Somali human trafficking brokers who were facilitating the smuggling of illegal immigrants from East Africa into Botswana and South Africa. This was confirmed by Maduwane.

He said some of the trafficked people “are employed by their own” in Botswana while others are sold to South Africans. The Botswana Police Service is currently working with their South African counterparts to break the smuggling ring.

While the country’s manufacturing sector’s growth figures shoot up in the wake of the diversification drive, the Department of Labour and Home Affairs and the workers unions have lagged behind. Ramotswa Labour Officer, Seabi Pilane, acknowledged that she was unable to make site visits to factories under her jurisdiction for inspection due to lack of adequate facilities especially transport. She, however, referred The Sunday Standard to the Gaborone District Labour Office for details on labour inspections.