Assistant minister of Labour and Home Affairs and former unionist, Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri, stopped short of reciting Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in a bid to contain the country’s frayed industrial relations.
Addressing Francistown mining employees recently, Matlhabaphiri repeatedly reiterated Karl Marx’s famous mantra: “workers unite”. The minister said it was clear that most Batswana workers are not aware of their rights and are thus prone to exploitation by employers. He also bemoaned the polarization of the working class saying that it weakened the labour movement’s bargaining power and overburdened the labour department as the department is now forced to address workers grievances individually.
Matlhabaphiri lambasted local workers for their ignorance of the law and their penchant for favouring combative and aggressive means of communication with the employer instead of more amicable dispute resolution avenues, a factor which he said has not only led to unnecessary loss of jobs but also overwhelmed the labour department and the industrial court which are swamped with cases that could have been easily solved in the work place.
He called for the unity of the workforce so that there can be a collective approach in dealing with disputes instead of the present case scenario where every aggrieved employee individually reports their grievances to the labour department.
”Workers should be educated about their rights so that they do not despair but fight for fairness in times of disputes,” he said. He lambasted employees for hiding behind the lame excuse that they fear victimization. “Botswana’s laws do not allow victimization and an employee who has been suppressed into bottling their views has avenues through which they can raise complaints,” he said.
But Matlhabaphiri’s scathing attack was not only meant for the employees as he later refocused his cannons and shot salvos at some unscrupulous employers whom he said were in the habit of continuously violating their employees’ rights.
“Unfair dismissals are the order of the day,” he charged, adding that most of the time employees are dismissed without any disciplinary hearing. He said that proper investigation and disciplinary channels should be followed before dismissal adding that the employee should be fairly represented in all these stages. Matlhabaphiri also said that the trade disputes act which was reviewed in 2002 clearly states that even when an employee is wrong he should be given a chance to defend himself in a hearing and that such hearings should be fair and have equal representation of both the employer and the employee.
“Botswana’s labour laws are some of the best in the world,” Matlhabaphiri said, “and it is unreasonable for employees to complain that they are disadvantaged during disputes.” He added that aggrieved employees have a right to appeal to the labour department for mediation within 30 days. The mediation process will also take 30 days and, if it fails, employees have the right to give 48 hour notice before they launch a strike. Such a strike must be approved by a majority (2/3) of the employees. At the same time the employer has a right to perform a lock out as a way of exerting pressure on the employees to return to work.
“But your representatives mislead you and tell you that government does not allow strikes. What we are saying is that proper channels have to be followed before a strike can be launched,” he said.
Matlhabaphiri said that if properly implemented, Botswana’s labour laws can solve all labour disputes challenging the work force to make an effort to create awareness of such laws. “On top of mediating and arbitrating labour disputes, the labour department is faced with the additional task of inspection and assessment of work permits and business places, all these in the face of a dire shortage of staff,” said the assistant minister.
Commenting on Matlhabaphiri’s statements, Botswana Local Authorities Workers Union Publicity secretary, Ishmael William, said that he agreed with most of the statements made by Matlhabaphiri. He charged that there are elements within the labour movement who, because they earn more than others, choose not to join unions, even going to the extent of sabotaging union activities.
William added that membership morale is at times crippled by corrupt leaders who use union funds for their personal gain.
“Most of the time, workers are disillusioned by leaders who join unions with the false pretence of fighting for workers’ rights when they know that they are looking to get their hands into the unions’ coffers or to elevate their names for future political gain,” he said.