Friday, December 3, 2021

Transitions in the labour sector amid Covid-19 sponsored SOE

Economic pundits – both at the government enclave and within the private sector bat the ball back and forth about the best way to keep the country’s economic engine running. When it comes to the labour sector, some root for an outright downsize exercise so as to cut operational costs, others bet their last Thebe on retaining the current headcounts. Theorists of the latter argue that letting workers keep their jobs would help the government with revenue collected from personal income tax while also making sure that Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies stay in business.

But as economic engines continue to hum, allowing businesses shift levers to adjust to the new norm, the office of the Commissioner General – Labour is already getting over stretched.

The office has been mandated to amongst other things deal with disputes between employees and employers. The office says the number of employees retrenched during the State of Emergency (SOE) was generally low due to the regulations that were put in place by the government concerning dismissals and retrenchments. The office pegs the number of companies that retrenched workers (204) between April 2020 and August 2021 at 24. Furthermore, in compliance with Section 25 of the Employment Act, 369 companies had submitted notifications of intention to retrench for various reasons. Commissioner of Labour – Goitseone Kokorwe explains that her office engaged the concerned companies and on appreciation of the need for social dialogue in this process, some companies retracted their intentions. Kokorwe says the retrenchments that occurred were mostly due to cessation of operations (closure of businesses).

She however cautions that the effects of Covid-19 pandemic cannot solely be dealt with current Labour Laws and Regulations towards.

“Government experiences high costs, shortage of personnel and influx in reported cases”, explains Kokorwe.

Part of the cost, according to the Commissioner, stem from the, ‘no show at hearings’ by parties involved in trade dispute.

“Mediators/Arbitrators are paid a sitting allowance of P1 260.00 per sitting. A sitting in regard to mediation is mediating at least two trade disputes a day. In regard to arbitration, it is one arbitration case per day. Rescheduling, adjournments and Postponements in the same dispute are also paid. The payment of a mediator will therefore depend on the number of sittings a mediator undertakes in a given month.”

In order to address the issue of “no-show,” mediators are empowered to dismiss a referral if the referring party fails to attend the mediation hearing, give a default award if a party upon whom a referral has been served fails to attend a mediation hearing. This as well comes at a cost as a sitting will have been made by a mediator and be paid for. However, it helps Government reduces unnecessary postponements which attracts more costs.

The Labour Ministry has a total of 57 mediators/arbitrators. There are three (3) full time Arbitrators, 22 part time mediators/Arbitrators and 32 full time mediators across the country. This numbers could however slightly go up as the Minister responsible for employment – Mpho Balopi hinted in August 2021 of the possibility that the Government will hire more mediators. The intention is to speed up resolution of employer-employee related matters across the country.

At the moment, Botswana’s Trade Disputes Act mandates that a trade dispute referred to mediation or arbitration should be mediated or arbitrated within 30 days of such referral.

Kokorwe reveals that “however, currently some trade disputes are outside the 30 days statutory period especially in Gaborone and surrounding areas. Otherwise, other offices are within the statutory turnaround time”.

The many unresolved cases have been attributed to high number of trade disputes in areas with high economic activities where some industry growth outweighs the capacity of the Ministry.

Kokorwe says this has now been exacerbated by the disruptions of Covid-19. She admits that there have been disruptions in registration and mediation of cases resulting in influx as and when we resume work.

Change in labour gears

In order to address some of the deficiencies, the labour ministry has begun a review of some labour laws. It has emerged that consultations within the tripartite Labour Law Review Committee have been concluded and drafting of instructions has commenced.

Kokorwe explains that the review of the laws is intended to close gaps, facilitate ease of doing business, incorporate the various decisions of the Courts into laws, and to align the law with International Labour Standards that Botswana has ratified. The process has taken a longer than initially anticipated because of interruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the necessity to attain consensus on issues among the parties involved.”

“It also became necessary to take on board complex emerging issues in the world of work as a result of Covid-19. It is now envisaged that the Bills will be tabled before Parliament during the February 2022 session,” Kokorwe said.

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