29 September 2006

Botswana: Reflections On Labour Laws

As Botswana commemorates her 40th independence anniversary tomorrow, trade unionists believe that, whilst the country's labour movement has registered notable achievements, there are still challenges ahead. Botswana Congress Party (BCP) secretary for labour Affairs, Elias Mbonini, says there has been a lot of improvement in terms of general trade union movement in Botswana.

In particular, he appreciated the leap forward by the government in rectifying some International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions on child labour, unionisation of the civil servants, forced labour and others. "The unionisation of the government associations means they now have some strong bargaining powers," he said. Mbonini is, however, unhappy that the government took long to align the country's labour laws and to ratify Conventions.

He warns workers in Botswana to desist from their attitude where they always want to be spoon-fed. "Workers must take advantage of the current laws and achieve a lot out of it," says Mbonini, who was previously the president of the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) and also a former chairman of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU) for over two decades. He laments the lack of a general growth in union membership across the industries. He sees a decline in membership of the unions, which he says does not help workers when negotiating with the employers. "As long as the membership of unions does not reflect any growth, this weakens the labour movement."

Mbonini is worried that the unions' leadership generally does not show commitment to the challenges of running the organisations. "The unions should spend time and money educating the leadership so that it can be accountable to the movement," he suggests. After 40 years of independence, he has a feeling that the country's labour movement must speak with one voice. "There is a need for the trade unions to speak with one voice and articulate issues bedevilling them. They should embark on capacity building exercises and take their time to recruit more members to beef up the unions." As it stands, he says, the labour movement is not a threat to any employer or even the government. He recommends that trade unions amalgamate and create a stronger voice. "Splinter trade unions have always resisted amalgamation without even considering the long term benefits. During our time in the labour movement, we started a process of amalgamation in 1994 which is still proving difficult over a decade later," he pointed out.

Moshe, the Publicity Secretary of the Botswana Unified Local Government Service Association (BULGSA), which is set to fully unionise by the end of the year, says there are signs of improvement. "So far, in terms of workers solidarity, things have improved for the better because when workers from one industry are affected, there is always solidarity from other sectors," he said. As an example, he cited the 461 Debswana workers. May Day is another annual activity that continues to bring workers together to jointly introspect on their achievements and challenges. "We believe that, as workers, when we work closely together, this offers an opportunity to appreciate each other and continue to strategise how we could tackle certain challenges together." He also emphasised that trade unionists should continue to encourage education of their members and leaders so that people should have a wider choice.

He is also worried by the continued fragmentation of trade unions, which he says does not help the labour movement at all. "There are many reasons why most of the labour organisations do not see the need to expedite the process of amalgamation, but at the end of the day, the fragmented labour movement feels the heat." He concurs with Mbonini that, with proper labour education, trade unionists will have a guided determination. "As we speak now, there are four teacher organisations in the country and they need to come together and speak with one voice," he pointed out. He added that, for the labour movement to be strong, there should be fulltime officers to run the day-to-day activities of the unions effectively. "It is unfortunate that we operate at the mercy of our employers and this is not sufficient." Botswana National Front (BNF) secretary for labour affairs, Gabatsoswe Lebitsa, also sees some slight improvement in the labour movement. He cites improvements on the Trade Disputes Act and the Employment Acts that have since been aligned to the ILO Conventions. Lebitsa is worried that there has never been a legal strike in the country. "I think it is time that the union leaders should stand up and challenge the long and tedious route to declare a strike legal," he declared. He encouraged the trade unionists to take up their case with some legislators who are committed to the improvement of the lives of Batswana so that they could advocate for a change of a relevant piece of legislation. "It's time that some of the known impediments to our labour laws are removed so as to enhance the bargaining powers of the workers." He has noted some serious challenges in the labour movement, especially in the area of education. "Some unionists continue doing their best but there are still gaps. There should be some structured training for the leaders so that they can, in turn, empower the rank and file," he recommended.

He challenges trade unions to be able to handle issues of interest during peace and turmoil and not only to wake up and discuss issues of salaries. Chairman of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU), Chimbidzani Chimidza, says it has been a mixed bag for the labour movement in the past 40 years. He said during former president Sir Ketumile Masire's era, things were better as workers from across the sectors were listened to. He applauded the government for participating in a number of activities that affected the workers. Under President Festus Mogae and his deputy Ian Khama, he lamented that the plight of workers who continue losing their jobs is not a concern to the duo. "Government should not only be concerned with multinationals maximising profits, it should also pay attention to the workers. This is not the case with Mogae's government," he says. To change the thinking of many workers and employers, he advocates for an early introduction of labour-related education so that Batswana could grow up fully conscious of their rights. Whilst he recognises the importance of the amalgamation of trade unions, he is cautious that at times leaders of huge trade unions forget about their mandate and get carried away with the power that goes with it. His ideal situation is when workers and employers listen to each other and reach amicable agreements without any push. "For this country to continue growing, there is a need for an improvement in the employer-employee relations so that all should feel as stakeholders and become even more productive." Botswana Secondary Teachers Union (BOSETU) president, Eric Ditau, says the labour movement in Botswana is not yet up to scratch. "There is nothing to write home about," he asserted. In his view on conceptualisation of the labour movement, there are still people who feel like owning trade unions although they cannot even articulate what the organisations stand for. At national level, he feels that as long as trade unions operate without a guiding document that projects workersâ ideology then it means they are still far away. "In as much as people blame the mother body, Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) for failing to strategise, we got to reflect on our failures as well as individual organisations," he asserted. He blames affiliates of BFTU for failing to provide a good calibre of leadership to run the affairs of the mother body efficiently. Even with the recent alignment of the labour laws to the ratified ILO Conventions, without the working ideology, he says the labour movement is still in the dark. He even encourages unions to speak with one voice.

He cites the issue of privatisation, which he says unions need to approach in unison rather than continue issuing contradicting statements. BOSETU has already started educating its regional structures with a view to taking the education to other structures across the country. From there, Ditau and his team will take the education to the public so that the public can appreciate them. He would be happy to see the four teacher organisations uniting and speaking with one voice. On the government side, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, Mothusi Bruce Palai, says, in the recent past, there has been an evolution of labour laws. The most significant changes that he notes, relates to the Incomes Policy of 1990. "It is the one which the government agreed that there must be a change in the law to allow the employer-employee to bargain much better," says Palai. Between 1997/98, he says, about 12 conventions were ratified all at once. Conventions 87, 98 and 15 gave unions the right to strike and the civil service to unionise.

To Palai, this ratification was a major move forward more so that after 2000, the labour laws were amended. With about 461 workers fired at the Debswana mines recently and 178 fired at BCL mine, one wonders if these are the immediate negative results of the right to strike. Palai has received comments from some trade unionists arguing that the labour laws are run through courts. On the other hand employers feel that workers just rush the decision to strike without exhausting the procedure laid down. Palai has advised them to look at the law thoroughly and to identify the impediments, with a view to getting rid of them and possibly recommending amendments. He agreed that the government is not doing enough to educate the workers and the unions. "There should be more from the government side of course to empower the stakeholders so that they could bargain from an informed point of view," he owned up and added that, in most cases, it would save valuable time that is often lost during talks.

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