Tati Nickel boss, Seb Sebetlela, last week laughed off insinuations that there is a problem between the mine management and the Botswana Mine Workers Union, saying that the union was entitled to its opinions, which, however, cannot influence how the mine conducts its business.
Sebetlela was responding to a question from The Sunday Standard as to why it seems the union and management are always at loggerheads on issues of consultation and retrenchment packages. The two institutions have never had a cordial relationship. Even before Sebetlela took the helm at Tati Nickel BMWU has repeatedly accused management of corruption, unfair labour practices and nepotism.
Late last year, the acrimonious relationship came to the fore after the collapse of the Botswana Metal Refineries, Tati nickel’s sister company. A bitter war of words erupted between the two over the amount and nature of packages that the employer, BMR, and the contractors, are supposed to pay their former employees. While BMWU insisted that the employees are supposed to be paid all their dues, including separation and relocation packages, the mining company is said to have remained steadfast that the employees will only be paid for the hours that they have worked.
As negotiations between the two reached a stalemate, BMWU Secretary General Jack Tlhagale said that the union had decided to seek the intervention of the Minister of Minerals Energy and Water Resources, Ponatshego Kedikilwe.
Tlhagale remained adamant that the employees had to be paid all their dues, including their leave days and separation packages because they neither chose to close down the BMWU operations nor leave employment
BMWU also accused the mine of not consulting the union and the employees as to the true implications of the suspension of the project. “In a proper working environment there is always consultation. The events that unfolded as the project was suspended revealed a glaring lack of consultation between the employer and the employees. And we say that we are reading sinister motives behind their secrecy and the sneaky way in which they handled the whole issue,” said Tlhagale at the time.
Earlier this year, Tati Nickel introduced a voluntary separation exercise that was meant to streamline the mining giant’s labour force as the credit crunch started to bite. At the time, reports indicated that management reserved the right to accept or reject employees’ applications for voluntary separation, while it also did not rule out retrenchment if the exercise failed.
After consultations between BMWU and Tati Nickel failed yet again, the union rushed to the courts of law seeking the court to order an interdiction restraining Tati Nickel from implementing the voluntary separation scheme as it had failed to bargain in good faith and consult effectively.
However, BMWU lost the case with costs as Industrial Court Judge Herald Ruhukya ruled that the union’s application was not necessarily urgent and that there was no basis for the court to impose a moratorium on the voluntary separation exercise.
Ruhukya also ruled that Tati Nickel management had consulted extensively with the employees. Once again, the issue of the disparity between the consultation and negotiation process between employer and employee also came to the fore in the case.
But Sebetlela last week dismissed the continued bickering between BMWU and management as a thing that would almost always happen between institutions.”I would not classify what we have with BMWU as a problem. Rather it is the constitutional right of the union to have, maintain and fight for their opinion. But it does not necessarily mean that we will agree with them,” he said.