Public service salaries under threat

SHARE   |   Monday, 14 March 2016   |   By Justin Hunyepa
Public service salaries under threat

The recent court case by Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) against Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) in which the former is making several prayers to the Industrial Court poses a serious challenge for the Botswana workers in general. Should the judge rule in favour of BOPEU, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) led government, especially the Executive and in particular the Cabinet would joyfully welcome this judgment as it will be the greatest winner. While BOPEU has its own views and issues about the Bargaining Council, the BDP-led government interest in this matter is well known and documented. This is a political battle as the BDP-led government does not want BOFEPUSU to lend its support to the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). Surprisingly, the BDP-led government in the past enjoyed the patronage of some main and dominant staff associations then. And the main opposition parties then, the Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) never threatened nor planned to destroy such organisations. Staff associations and trade unions change alliances and support parties that have their membership interest at heart. That is why today they have changed and support UDC.

The government has in the past made several attempts to dismantle and destroy BOFEPUSU, but failed dismally. Every time she attempted, she was left with a smelly egg on her face. So the judgment will solve her protracted battle should it turn out to be in favour of BOPEU. She has since classified BOFEPUSU as her number one enemy though BOFEPUSU is just a messenger of the workers. With BOFEPUSU destroyed, President Lt General Seretse Khama Ian Khama will have the latitude to announce public service salaries and other conditions of service willy-nilly, without the nosy BOFEPUSU. He has done this several times in the past when addressing Kgotla meetings, especially in rural areas and BOFEPUSU went to court to restrain him. During the 2011 protected public sector strike, the BDP-led government dismissed hundreds of public sector employees as a way of scaring them from taking part in future BOFEPUSU organised industrial action activities. As if this was not enough, the Khama administration slapped the striking public sector workers with No Work No Pay for almost three months.

A caring government had an option not to apply this. To further demoralise the workers and scare them from future industrial action activities like strikes, President Khama, in his 2011 State of the Nation Address, described the striking workers as unpatriotic though they were in a legal and protected strike. He then praised those who did not strike. Further driving a wedge between the workers he invited some to state house for free lunch. We have seen Secretary Generals of BTU, BOSETU and BLLAWHU, affiliates of BOFEPUSU being withdrawn from their secondments just after the famous public sector strike and the reasons for that were frivolous; Government attempts to deregister BOFEPUSU and losing the case; Government attempts to take away organisational rights of BOFEPUSU affiliates and losing the case are some examples of government anger towards BOFEPUSU. Out of more anger and hatred, the Khama administration took away the housing and vehicle schemes which was managed by UNIGEM (Pty) Ltd, a company owned by BOFEPUSU affiliates. The Khama administration believed that the scheme gave BOFEPUSU millions of pula and hence taking it back to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning hoping that it will bring BOFEPUSU to its knees.

To his utter disappointment, BOFEPUSU remained steely and continued to represent the workers’ interests. The cases against BOFEPUSU have been endless and they will only end in 2019 when the workers finally remove the BDP-led government from power. For now, aluta continua! Remain united! Should the Industrial Court rule in favour of BOFEPUSU, it will be one of the greatest wins for the public sector workers. Currently the over 100 000 public service employees are demoralised, disgruntled and in panic mode as the 2016/17 salary negotiations have been interdicted by the court. Should BOFEPUSU lose the case, this will be the end of the public service bargaining under the Public Service Bargaining Council. This will then bring us to reflect on our domestic laws and international labour laws. This will then mean that our labour laws are seriously flawed if only one public sector trade union can qualify to sit at the bargaining council. Interestingly, Botswana government ratified 15 International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions in 1997. The 1949 Convention no 98 is on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. (It aims at protecting workers in exercising the right to organise, preventing State interference in workers and employers’ organisations in promoting voluntary collective bargaining).

Another fundamental ratified convention of 1948 is on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (no 87).  The government has since domesticated them as found in the Public Service Act (2008) and other domestic laws, including Botswana Constitution. Should BOFEPUSU lose the case, this will mean that the BDP-led government labour laws are not friendly at all. A loss for BOFEPUSU is a loss for all the workers. Public salary increments have a direct bearing on the private sector salaries as private sector employers usually get a cue from government. The private sector workers should therefore note that BOFEPUSU loss is their loss too.
Justin Hunyepa
UDC Labour Secretary