Botswana Railways train crew members want to be paid scarce skill allowance because, as a union representative explains, they both provide a scarce skill and form part of the national essential services cadre.
“It is not easy to find people who do what we do. When an enginemen or trainmen resigns, it is not easy to find a replacement because ours is a specialised service. It is also not the sort of work where you can do on-the-job training. Right now, Botswana Railways is experiencing shortage of train crew members and elderly enginemen are being brought back out of retirement. Spoornet in South Africa is also doing the same thing,” says Thapelo Molefe, the deputy secretary of the Botswana Railways Train Crews Union. He added that Spoornet has also recruited from Botswana.
“That is how acute the shortage is,” he said.
In ascending order, train crew positions are shunter, trainman, engineman and senior engineman. A shunter separates and joins wagons, “engineman” is the industry term for what would otherwise be called driver or pilot and his assistant is called trainman. In terms of the Trade Disputes Act, train crew members are also part of the essential-services cadre who work in industries that are critical to the economy. The other services are air traffic control, diamond sorting, cutting and selling, teaching, veterinary, Botswana Vaccine Laboratory, electricity, fire, Bank of Botswana, health, sewerage, transport and telecommunications and water. However, while they are considered essential service, train crew members are not paid scarce skills allowance. The inclusion of pilots on the list makes for quite interesting comparison and Molefe points out that being engineman has higher responsibility levels than being a pilot.
“A passenger plane carries 300 people while a passenger train carries a much higher number. A single locomotive engine is worth P30 million and when an engineman has to fetch coal from Morupule Colliery, he uses three engines and some 50 wagons. That means that the job of engineman is much more delicate than that of a pilot,” he says.
At two years, training for an engineman takes much longer than that for a pilot. A trainman’s training takes 12 months while a shunter’s takes six months.
BRTCU has presented its grievances to the Ministry of Transport and Communications but lack of continuity in the system seems to have stymied efforts to address them. Four years ago when such grievances were officialised at that level, the permanent secretary was Mabua Mabua who has since moved on to head the Botswana Fibre Networks. He had acknowledged that the job grades of train crew members “have not been appropriately reviewed for a number of years.” To date the process that he initiated to correct such anomaly has not borne fruit.