Tuesday, June 22, 2021

National COVID-19 laboratory turned into sweatshop – claim

It has been alleged to Sunday Standard that temporary staff at the COVID-19 laboratory are working under sweatshop conditions and under an unusually autocratic supervision by a director.

When the pandemic hit Botswana last year, a dedicated lab was set up at the National Health Laboratory, which is across the road from and is a department under the Princess Marina Referral Hospital. Important paperwork (in the form of a contract of employment) was skipped when temporary staff (being phlebotomists and data entry clerks) was hurriedly engaged. That oversight is now causing a lot of headache for temporary staff which is complaining about a whole slew of Employment Act violations.

Top of the list is payment. Staff members complain that they are persistently paid late – when everybody else in the civil service got their December 2020 pay, they were left out. That meant that they had to watch helplessly as everybody else in the working class engaged in the ritual of Christmas shopping.

Civil servants work eight hours a day and any extra hours worked attract overtime payment. With the COVID-19 situation in Botswana getting worse by the day, the laboratory operates round the clock and requires staff members to work more than eight hours on an almost daily basis. It is from this lab that the Presidential Task Force gets information that the Task Force’s Deputy Coordinator, Professor Mosepele Mosepele, shares with the nation on Botswana Television. Mosepele is on loan from the University of Botswana’s School of Medicine.

The first complaint with regard to the payment of overtime is that it is also not paid on time, has been accumulating in the period of time that the lab has been operating and when it comes, is paid both sporadically and selectively. The elaboration with precise regard to the latter is that some staff members are paid while others are not. The second complaint is that a director in charge of the COVID-19 lab has decided to basically force temporary staff members to do voluntary work when they should be earning overtime payment for working additional hours. While insisting that staff members must work beyond 1830, the director in question is said to have arbitrarily decreed that no overtime will be paid for work done beyond 1830. Her explanation: “You are volunteering.” From what we learn, consent was never sought from those expected to do this volunteer work. 

The third complaint relates to official transport. As a matter of practice, civil servants who work outside normal hours are provided with transport to and from their homes. Our information is that while permanent staff members are provided with transport, temporary ones – who would have been required to “volunteer’ their services beyond 1830, are not. The peculiarity of this expectation in this particular phase of the pandemic is that the curfew that is still in effect prohibits movement after 8 p.m. The latter means that public transport (in the form of taxi-buses and taxis) is not available during the curfew hours. It also means that temporary staff members who knock off after 8 p.m., having been forced to volunteer their services and don’t have their own cars, are left stranded. Given that these people are essential workers, they would have been issued with a travel permit but the option of walking home alone at night is risky because thieves are still taking their chances with the law.

“Some decide to just work all night, this time really volunteering their services until early morning when transport becomes available,” says a source, adding that in some instances, temporary staff members who work virtually all night are required (by the director in question) to report for duty a few hours later.

On the other hand, permanent staff members who work odd hours earn overtime payment for work done beyond normal work hours and are provided with transport. The oddity this raises is that these workers do the same job, in the same workplace and may often have to work together.

Part of the problem has to do with temporary staff members not being unionized because the worker protections prescribed in the Employment Act are not guaranteed. All too often, trade unions that fight long and hard to ensure that the government complies with the Act. Permanent staff members are unionized while temporary ones are not. In practical terms, temporary workers (and not just those at the lab in question) don’t have worker protections and find themselves at the mercy of their supervisors.

What is also working in the government’s favour is Botswana’s unemployment rate. Tens of thousands of unemployed graduates walk the streets and like the private sector, the government has shown no compunction about treating workers (especially temporary ones) dastardly. When temporary staff members at the lab complained about their working conditions, the director is alleged to have told them: “You are free to quit if you can’t do what I tell you to.” Staff members are said to be anxious to sign a contract of employment that would stipulate what their rights are but the director is said to have stated that the contract is still being discussed at management level.

Morale among this particular group is said to have dipped below tolerable levels. The latter would have serious implications that extend to the quality of work at the lab – including the accuracy of test results.

“Imagine being required to work overtime when you are still owed overtime payment that you have no idea of when you will get it,” says a source.

Sunday Standard sought comment from the laboratory through the Princess Marina PR office but at press time, a fortnight had gone by with no response being tendered.

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