In the wake of a judgement passed by Justice Gaongalelwe on Friday in which he ruled in the favour of the Botswana Public Employees Union and the government, we find it “fit and proper” to repeat the same sentiments we made a few weeks back.
In the past few weeks, we have been given a glimpse into what could lie ahead in our country, precisely in the labour sector. As we write this, the labour movement in the country and the largest employer, being the government, are involved in a protracted and debilitating industrial relations dispute.
At the centre of the dispute is the diminishing economic power of workers, with much interest on those working at the government enclave.
Government on one hand seeks to increase salaries of public servant outside an internationally recognised Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) ÔÇô which the government is a member of.
Despite court orders, the government strongly feels that as the employer, it has the right to increase salaries of its employers when it pleases and at any rate it so wishes to.
The unions, as represented by BOFEPUSU, AJA (currently constituted by the NALCGPWU, BOSETU, BTU & BLLAWHU) on the other hand want things done as per the international labour conventions that the same government signed some several years ago.
As a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Botswana, in 1997, ratified the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention 87 which aims at safeguarding the free exercise by workers and employers of the right to organise for furthering and defending their interests.
Still in the same year (1997), Botswana ratified the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention 98. The convention elaborates the rights set forth in Convention 87.
The convention aims at protecting workers exercising the right to organise, preventing interference in workers and employers organisations and promoting voluntary collective bargaining.
It was through such convention that the government together with trade unions set up the PSBC ÔÇô which unfortunately seems to be dysfunctional, at least in the past two or three years. The Council, whose mandate is to advise government on the remuneration of civil servants, comprises representatives of the government and those of the public service trade union.
As stated before, in the last two or so years, thousands of civil servants find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as the government decided to announce adjustment of their salaries outside this noble structure of collective bargaining ÔÇô PSBC.
Those in the know have even suggested that this “illegal” salary increases by the government have been made to deliberately discredit the trade union movement. The null and void increases as the court ruled them to be, seems to be aimed at causing divisions among the unions’ members as to whether to accept the salary increase offered by government or accept a legitimate one that comes about as a result of negotiation between the government and BOFEPUSU.
All this happens at a time when elsewhere, the role of trade unions has since evolved from that of just agitating for members’ economic standing and dignified working conditions for employees but to also shaping domestic democracies.
It is common cause that government by its nature, and trade unions, are often pitched against each other. But it is quiet disappointing to have a government that set up an organ like PSBC and then go ahead and sideline or frustrate it from doing its work.
That should come to an end unless of course the government is not only content with simply demolishing the welfare state of workers but also hell-bent on eradicating their meaningful way of collective bargaining.
We all know that the power of the trade unions comes from its influence to mobilise its members into action, at its most extreme, a strike or threat of strike at the lesser end of the spectrum.
The government seems to have taken that away from some civil servants as a number of them including teachers have since been classified essential service ÔÇô meaning they cannot strike. So why, at bare minimum, not allow their leaders to negotiate for their working conditions?
With this poverty pay, recent attacks through state media and court cases, it is becoming crystal clear that the government does not care about the interest of the working class. But the question then is: who does the government expect to be leading the pack of nation builders when it is frustrating its own workforce?
The truth of the matter is that nation building and national development largely depends on how the government accepts and tolerates trade union collective bargaining and its role in national development. That is, how well government is willing to work with trade unions to determine the level of productivity and national prosperity.
Are we ever going to get good results from students when teachers are frustrated? Will our economy grow as we desire if the dignity of the workers in this country continues to diminish? While we wait to know, the trade union movement as lead by BOFEPUSO should not rest until workers dignity is restored.
The #Bottomline remains that trade union and labour relations environment in our country is currently in a mess, and while rigid employment laws, pedestrian economic growth and the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis have undoubtedly contributed, they do not explain the whole problem.