I am informed that the observance of May Day has its roots in late nineteenth century America. Following their civil war, which resulted in the abolition of slavery, workers of all races began to unite for the first time in order to promote their common interests. Their principal demand at the time was for an eight hour working day. By 1886 this campaign had culminated in an unprecedented nationwide industrial action, which in turn inspired workers organizations elsewhere. As a result, at an international meeting of workers’ organisations held in Paris three years later, it was agreed that May Day should be commemorated across the globe. Thus, on May 1st 1890, workers in Europe, North and South America came together for the first time to celebrate their common humanity, as well as affirm their common struggle for better conditions of service. In the decades that followed, the observance of May Day also rapidly spread to the other continents: Asia, Africa and Australia. The world in 1890 was in many ways much harsher than it is today. Back then there was little official recognition that workers were entitled to individual and collective rights on the basis of their labour. Seemingly endless working hours, near starvation wages, abusive child labour and unhealthy and hazardous working conditions were then the norm in even the wealthiest industrial societies.
Here in southern Africa was even worse. Migrant labourers from this country, as well as elsewhere in the region, suffered the additional hardships of the closed compound system, colour bar and other injustices based on colonial and racial subordination. Indeed, for many decades the real wages of the vast majority of migrant labourers from this country actually declined. It was only after independence, when we were free to pursue our own development path, that there was change for the better. Our struggle as a nation for development is, of course, ongoing. Yet, let it be recognised that today, after five decades of sustained progress, Batswana on the whole not only enjoy greater rights but, perhaps more to the point, derive greater benefits from their labour. This is in no small part due to the productive relationship that has grown up over the years between the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions and various employers in both the public and private sectors. This relationship has been and should remain anchored by a common commitment on the part of the labour movement and employers alike to adhere to a legislative framework that specifies both the rights and responsibilities of each party. In a democracy such as ours there ultimately can be no other way.
It cannot be denied that the interests of workers are critical to sustainable development and the government has always had as one of its goals the improvement in the welfare of workers. Programmes introduced by Government over the years to improve the welfare of workers are there for all to see. In this both history and our own modern experience clearly teach that true nation building is the product of partnership in the pursuit of a common vision. Moreover, and in the final analysis, the quality of our efforts in ensuring workers’ rights also says something fundamental about our very identity as a nation. Most of us, whether we belong to the economically struggling or more privileged segments of our society, must inevitably work for a living. The rights enjoyed by organised labour in this country are first and foremost rooted in Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, as guaranteed in the Constitution. These include the freedoms of assembly, association and expression, along with protection against servitude and discrimination.
For its part Government has done a lot in terms of protecting worker’s rights and improving working conditions. To this end, workers are allowed to form and belong to trade unions, and to bargaining collectively with employers. These are fundamental rights which are protected by the Trade Unions and Employer’s Organisations Act and Trade Disputes Act. The protection of these rights benefited substantial from the implementation of 12 ILO Conventions ratified by Botswana in 1997. Let me here express my appreciation for the fact that Trade Unions have contributed to the improvement of the labour laws through the Tripartite Consultative Structures like the Labour Adviser Board. Government also undertook to ensure that basic conditions of employment are regulated and enforced through labour inspections, the purpose of which is to ensure that workers and employers comply with labour laws.
The mediation and arbitration processes undertaken by the Department of Labour and Social Security, and adjudication by the courts in this country provide remedial mechanisms where gaps in the implementation of the labour laws exist. The trade dispute resolution system has been modernised over the years, culminating in the establishment of the industrial court in 1994 and further refinement in 2004 to improve the way the mediation and arbitration processes, as well as adjudication by the Industrial Courts were functioning. Labour relations is a dynamic field. The world of work is ever changing because of the demands of the labour market. Consequently, the process of introducing improvements in our laws is an on-going process. The Trade Dispute Bill was tabled in the last session of Parliament, but it was not finalised because some Members of Parliament felt that it should await the determination of a case filed by BOFEPUSU at High court. The main purpose of the Bill is introduce improvements in the trade dispute resolution system with a view to enhancing industrial harmony. We are always going to differ on issues, but that should never lead to an “us” and “them” attitude. On the contrary it should lead to more engagement. It is for this reason that I am grateful for this invitation.
As you are all also aware, the Industrial Court has over the years been faced with a backlog of cases. This challenge is being addressed through a number of initiates, which include decentralisation of the services provided by the court and installation of electronic case management system. Social protection benefits are provided in various pieces of labour laws such as Employment act and Workers Compensation Act. In order to enhance the social protection benefits already provided, the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, in collaboration with the ILO, has undertaken a study on the feasibility of introducing a Broad-based Occupational Pension Scheme. Consultations with stakeholders on this matter are on-going and the outcome of these consultations will inform Government on what we need to do as a country. I here wish to observe that expanded the rights of organised labour, should result in a greater corresponding sense of responsibility by workers. Labour relations between employers and employees are best defined as a partnership. Benefit to one should result in benefit to the other, and loss to one is a loss to the other. The employer and employee are interdependent for in the absence of either the workplace ceases.
Inasmuch as workers are entitled to advocate for better working conditions, they should also understand the need to apply themselves fully and faithfully to their vocational responsibilities to ensure optimal productivity. Only when this is the case will the benefits they derive from their rights prove to be sustainable. This is especially true in today’s highly competitive global market whose rewards often go to those economies where management and labour opt for partnership, rather than confrontation. This can call for short term sacrifice on both sides of the table. Ideally, employees should identify their own long term interests with the sustained success of their employers. But, for such an identification to take place the employers must also look beyond short term profits so as to derive the potentially greater benefits that can accrue from a genuine commitment to the welfare of any organisation’s greatest resource, its people.
It is worth noting that even where both sides have genuine desire to sacrifice, there are factors beyond their control that often influence their relationship. One such factor is the status of the economy. In the past the interpretation of economic indicators and government responses to such have been a source of major controversy. I urge you to acquaint yourself and engage government more on economic issues, because workers are a major partner in addressing economic challenges. Let me conclude by acknowledging that there remain significant challenges that must be overcome if we are to ultimately turn our loftiest visions into down to earth reality. For now, it is appropriate that we use this day to once more affirm our common commitment to sustainable development on the basis of what unites all of us as both workers and stakeholders of this country.
This is part of a keynote address delivered on behalf of the Vice President by the Assistant Minister for Presidential Affairs and Public Administration Philip Makgalemele at May Day commemoration.