President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s promise to ensure that companies comply with a state-of-emergency requirement that prohibits retrenchment is way too flexible to offer real employment benefits.
Making his case to parliament for the another extension of the state of emergency (SoE) last Tuesday, Masisi cited certain “achievements” from the SoE regulations.
“They prohibited retrenchments or dismissal of employees during the SoE, where businesses were unable to pay salaries,” he said.
That message was later reiterated in parliament by Vice President, Slumber Tsogwane, a day later when he tabled a motion for a six-month extension of the SoE. But for the second clause, he used the exact same words that Masisi had used the day before.
Employers and employees transact two very simple commodities: labour from the former and money from the latter. In terms of Masisi’s regulations, money is missing from that equation. The end result is employment without payment.
Faced with the worst economic slump in decades, some companies have not been able to pay their employees for months now. A good example is one of the major hotels in Gaborone that was doing very well pre-COVID. The situation has changed. Junior staff now work on a rotational basis basis and even then, are only paid for days worked. They can stay up to three months, meaning that they don’t get paid for that long. Senior staff also get paid for days worked in a month but such days have been steadily decreasing: from 10 to 5 to 3 days. Late last month, heads of department and their assistants were told that they won’t be getting paid this month because the hotel has no money. The SoE provision on retrenchment will keep those employees on the establishment register but not on the payroll.
Contributing to the debate on the extension of the SoE last Thursday, Palapye MP, Onneetse Ramogapi, pointed out various other aspects of this employment-without-payment anomaly and proposed that labour laws should be aligned with the SoE. In service of that argument, the MP said that judges at the Industrial Court don’t know what laws to apply to deal with a drastically altered employment situation.
Retrenchments are not entirely prohibited during the SoE; rather, employers who want to retrench employees are legally required to notify the Commissioner of Labour and Social Protection before doing so. Addressing parliament two months ago, the Minister of Employment, Labour Productivity and Skills Development, Mpho Balopi said that the government was concerned about incidents of illegal retrenchments, referring to instances when employers hadn’t notified the Commissioner.
In the early days of the pandemic and upon conviction that COVID-19 would be tamed in no time, the government supported businesses by subsidizing their wage bill. Some businesspeople used this opportunity to scam the government by claiming the subsidy but not passing it on to their employees. It is more than likely that others claimed this subsidy, then “donated” some of it to the President’s Appeal Fund in order to curry favour with the government – by using the government’s own money. Interestingly, donations peaked when the government was doling out subsidies and stopped when the subsidies stopped.