Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Point scoring between Gov’t and Trade Unions killing economic prospects

This week the Minister of Finance and Development Planning will deliver a national budget before Parliament. For many ordinary Batswana the speech will as all those before it be clouded by statistical fog for which no meaning is immediately discernible. As in all previous speeches the minister is likely to tell us that economically the situation could have been worse had it not been for the interventions by himself and/or his government.

To somebody who has seen their living standards slide from bad to worse during that same time, such a pronouncement by the minister, no matter the strength and veracity of empirical data provided to support it, will seem outlandish on the part of the minister and his government. It would be an insult for a young man or woman who for the last seven years could not find any gainful employment to learn from the minister that jobs have actually been created over the last twelve months. It would be even more churlish for an ordinary folk struggling to make ends meet including putting bread on the table to learn from the same minister that the last twelve months have recorded any economic growth. Most crucially it would be a statistic of no use to an ordinary Motswana to learn from the minister that government has over the same time managed to reduce its current account deficit when during that same time their wages have actually declined in real and absolute terms.

In short, many Batswana are growing to view the budget speech by the Finance Minister as an irrelevance; a mandatory annual ritual which they are forced to put up with even as in the end they never have anything to show for it in terms of improving their lives. What Batswana need are jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs. If a budget speech does not deliver these jobs to them the speech is of no use. It is our contention that these jobs can only come from the private sector and not from government. But with the prevailing climate of increasingly deteriorating industrial relations, it is unlikely that people would risk their investments by creating more jobs. Government has announced that it has filled positions in the Bargaining Council by appointing its representatives and their alternate members. This we want to point out is a commendable step towards creating an appropriate climate under which Trade Unions can engage Government in their negotiations at the Bargaining Council.

A statement from the Directorate of Public Service Management says the positions had gone for time some time unfilled, crucially and deliberately opting not to state the reasons why it took so long to put into place an enabling instrument of the negotiation process as envisaged by the Public Service Act: “The Government of Botswana would like to announce that it has filled vacant posts of its representatives in the Public Bargaining Council as well as appointed alternate members for each Government representative in the Council. This is in line with the requirement of the law that the representatives have alternates of an equal number however, for some time Government was unable to fill in the position of the alternate members. The Council operates on a 50/50 representation, from Government and recognized public service trade unions. The positions were approved and filled on the 21st of January, 2014 and the Council convened on the 27th of January, 2014 to continue with normal business and pave way for negotiations.”

As we point out above the appointment of government representatives to the Bargaining Council is long overdue. As the Press Release itself recognizes the Public Service Bargaining Council was established by section 50 and 51 of the Public Service Act to among other things negotiate, conclude and enforce collective bargaining agreements between the employer and recognized public service trade unions, facilitate cooperation between the employer and the public officers regarding matters affecting the public service in order to increase efficiency of the service and wellbeing of public service. Bad faith on the part of Government can only have been the factor behind refusal to appoint representatives to the Council. While we acknowledge the latest development, we want to point out that there is still a lot of underlying tension, suspicion and in some instances open hostility that characterize relations between Government and the public sector Trade Unions.

It would seem like each side is determined not just to undermine the other but in fact defeat or even obliterate it. This is not the spirit of the Public Service Act. This kind of relationship is not what some of us had in mind when we spent many years campaigning for the change of law to allow for establishment of Trade Unions in the Public Service. Those with memories able to stretch long enough would recall that in the past the laws of Botswana would only allow associations and explicitly forbade Trade Unions in the Public Service, hence we had such associations like BCSA (Botswana Civil Service Association) and BULGASA (Botswana Unified Local Government Association) Our view was that Trade Unions are much better able to substantively represent the interests of workers than was the case with associations at the time.

It also was the general view at the time that in the manner then established, association leaders were handicapped from meaningfully negotiating with government since they did not have the protection of the law, much less security of tenure and mandate as provided under a legally recognized Trade Union. To its credit, when the law was enacted, Government went out of its way to meet the Unions halfway including by extending to them resources, infrastructure to collect membership dues and even seconding some of its employees to go and work fulltime for the Unions’ secretariats. Instead of working together, government on the one hand and the Trade Unions on the other seem to be concertedly putting into place efforts to undermine and even defeat one another.

This is unhelpful for economic recovery, counter-productive in as far as efforts to create jobs are concerned and basically eroding all the achievements of the past that this country gained during times of less industrial relations temperatures. We call on the Minister for Presidential Affairs and public Administration to show maturity by way of working towards normalisation of relations between his government and Trade Unions. This can only happen if the Minister and indeed the Unions themselves realize and internalise a simple truth that political nuances should not also define, determine or even supersede the nation’s destiny and interests.

Whatever the Minister of Finance tells the nation on Monday, much of it will come to naught unless the climate of industrial relations improves in this country.

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