On behalf of all members of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (the Union) in Debswana Operations, I wish to show that President Ian Khama of the Republic of Botswana is unfair to mineworkers and the union by his utterances at a Kgotla meeting he addressed in Orapa on 11 March 2010.
This was a day after the mineworkers had staged a protest march against Mr. Blackie Marole, Debswana Managing Director’s subtle indifference to the plight of citizen workers.
The timing of the Kgotla meeting and the intimacy between Khama and Debswana Management is indicative of worse things to come. Khama’s alliance with the Debswana management is not new. His predecessors enjoyed and some benefited from it if media reports are true.
Recently, it has been unbundled. The lopsided relationship affords management on the ground undue protections in everything they do and compromises good corporate governance.
In that Kgotla meeting, Management was given all the limelight to explain all distortions they contrived against the workers which were buttressed by the hitherto unwarranted accusations from the strongest man on the land.
President Khama’s approach is problematic as it unduly and openly antagonizes the workers and encourages a management which is already recalcitrant and manipulative to continue to disregard democratic negotiation and consultative agreements willy-nilly. This serves only to worsen the already precarious conditions for workers in Debswana.
As a member, of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma in the Rangoon region once said, “The people from the government are very cruel; they crush you and your family, at the slightest hint of protest”.
To illustrate another of his points, President Khama went on to allege that trade unions take their burning issues with employers to strikes and the courts rather than appeal for help or engage government. He used the 461 ex-Debswana employees’ situation as an example. His citation is incorrect.
Union members who went on strike in 2004 did so after the then President Festus Mogae’s half-hearted intervention was disregarded by Debswana. President Mogae confirmed within the two weeks he asked for that indeed Debswana Management, under the leadership of the late Mr. Nchindo, had indeed paid themselves huge bonuses to the exclusion of Union members. To say anything to the contrary is disingenuous.
Again, repeated reference to the 461 dismissals overplays its repressive connotations and makes Debswana as a workplace reminiscent of walking on a tightrope above sharp points.
The President decried what he alleged is trade union involvement in party politics rather than focus on conditions of employment for their members. This accusation against BMWU was hurled by Khama’s vice President Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe on the eve of the October 2009 general elections coincidentally in Orapa again.
This criticism is, with due respect, baseless.
Workers in Botswana are political parties’ members; some willfully, others by coercion and yet many are bought to join various political parties and are taught how to differentiate party symbols; are asked to register and to possess party membership cards; are taught how to vote and do vote in the same way as other citizens do.
Now how could a trade union be apolitical when it is a formation of politicians recognized by the state and the constitution of the land? Therefore, it is unfair to regard a trade union as meddling in politics when it resists slave wages; resists wide disparities in salaries between lowest and highest paid; protests unregulated high food prices; resists transfer of citizen held jobs to Chinese and other foreign nationals; resists unjust labour laws; when it protests arbitrary retrenchment of 1278 of its members without alternative jobs and so forth. Nor is it reasonable to seek to limit workers knowledge of politics or participation to the narrow act of casting a vote alone.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) observed that “The repression of trade union rights plunges Burmese workers deeper into poverty.
Oblivious of their rights, they find themselves at the mercy of employers that are only too happy to exploit a totally subservient workforce”. Burma is a country with a broken moral fiber and without a glimpse of democratic principles. Labour standards in Botswana are gradually deteriorating but should not be allowed to drop to the Burmese decadent levels.
President Khama threatened that workers may strike if they wish but should remember that hunger will visit us all as citizens in the end. This assertion seems to be true on the face of it.
However, none of our members intimated a strike at all. If the scare is to prevent industrial action, His Excellency, will be well advised not to take sides but be seen to embrace both workers and managers. To encourage managers to refuse to listen or to deny workers a salary increase or to pay peanuts or attempt to treat workers as big babies is counterproductive.
Already there are many hungry people who live on handouts in Botswana even before workers could dare contemplate any form of strike action. Hunger for the working class is a reality in Botswana. Its glaring features does not affect government top brass or chief executive officers. At the same time it has absolutely nothing to do with industrial action as a bargaining tool available to workers as written in the laws of this country.
Any attempt to render the negotiation forum meaningless or to condone managers’ manipulation of the employer/employee bargaining relationship is repressive. Comrade Maw of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma in Rangoon region confides “To the junta’s great despair, the torture, arrests and condemnations are not succeeding in eliminating Burmese trade unionists’ thirst for justice”.
Such attempts will fail in Botswana as well. May I end by saying “the extreme caution we have to deploy slows down our actions but we are trying to build something solid over the long term and we will get there”.
*Tlhagale is General Secretary of Mine Workers Union