• Employees demand 11% increase
• Govt refuses, insists on 6%
An indefinite strike by over 1000 employees of Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) across the country, over salary increase is estimated to bleed government millions of pula in lost revenue.
Although some economists declined to shed a light on the estimated loss of revenue on Friday, because the strike had just started, some said the amount lost due to failure to provide services to customers at different offices and stations throughout the country could escalate to millions of pula. The sentiment is shared by Refilwe Moonwa, Communications Manager at BURS, confirmed on Friday afternoon that employees have left workstations in all BURS offices around the country leading to disruption in the services they provide.
She said the service they provide is extremely slow as management continues to negotiate with the trade union representing the employees-Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) with the hope of coming to an agreement. No exact date for an agreement was known by close of business on Friday. “Our service is at a much slower pace than normal. The fewer people we assist, the lessor revenue we collect,” she said, adding that they have apologised to customers for the inconvenience caused by the industrial action.
Moonwa said they are continuing negotiations with BOPEU on one hand, while also persuading government to rescue the situation as their major stakeholder. She said they hope the issue of negotiations will be resolved quickly because if not then the economy will suffer a heavy blow because BURS will not be collecting enough money to meet their targets. On how much they are losing, Moonwa said at the moment they cannot quantify the loss but rather they will be able to do that as from next week to check how much they started losing on Friday as compared to the days when they are providing services at normal rate. In the 2013 financial year BURS collected revenue of P29.87 billion, showing growth of P5.5 billion from the P24.37 billion collected in 2011/2012.
BURS staff went on strike on Friday after the industrial court granted more than 1 000 BOPEU members permission to engage in an industrial action following the collapse of salary negotiations after three months. BURS employees total 1400, with 1372 belonging to a bargaining unit. According to the court ruling for the 14 days of the industrial action the employer shall not be entitled to make replacement of labour but if the action extends for 14 days then the employer shall be at liberty to do so. The permission was granted by industrial court judge Isaac Bahuma, who approved the strike rules agreed by the parties appearing before him. Employees on strike are expected to not cause any violence or damage, but rather to be calm in their protests.
Salary negotiations started in April when BURS approached the union with a proposal for 6 per cent increment but the latter refused the offer. BOPEU Secretary General Topias Marenga said they have decided to go on strike as a last resort since they do not agree with the terms put before them by the employer. He said the issue dates back to the 13th of May when in their jubilant mode management invited them to come forward and negotiate an offer on the table. He said they were disappointed to learn about the six per cent , but informed management that they will present the issue to their members to decide on the way forward. Employees rejected the offer outright.
Calculations based on BURS budget showed that the employer coulkd afford a 15 per cent increment, which the union consulted their members on. The members agreed that the 15 per cent should be negotiated but management rejected the counter offer. Both parties then did the calculations together and arrived at 13 per cent, which management rejected saying it ommitted overtime allowance. “We then agreed with them that they should go back and include the overtimes that they were talking about, and when they came back with the calculations we did ours and got down to 11 per cent,” said Marenga, adding that since negotaitions started BURS management has never moved from the six per cent arguing that it is the only amount government has offered.
Marenga said they made it clear to management that they cannot agree with the six per cent offer since they are not public servants, and as such different guidelines are to apply to them. He reiterated that even public servants are better off because their overtime allowances will increase the six per cent increment recently announced by government. He said they even went for mediation to give the employer a chance to sort themselves out. He said they told management that they cannot claim to be stuck with the six per cent offer after inviting them for negotiations in the first place. BURS management has even lost a case where the industrial court declared that they are a parastatal and can bargain with anyone without having to worry about the assistance they get from government.
Marenga said one thing that they have realised is that the employer is just playing hide and seek in order to delay them from taking action like the demonstrations they started on Friday. He said a government gazette was recently released showing that Customs has been included in the essential services schedule and that the bill will be passed through the parliament soon. He said they have since realised the inclusion is aimed at destroying their chances of being able to engage in strike action to fight for their rights. BURS plays a critical role in the economy regard tax collection. With the strike going on indefinitely the system will be crippled as only a few employees remain in the offices.
It was a sorry sight inside BURS offices in Gaborone on Friday with very long queues while most of the teller booths were empty due to the strike. One of the employees who are on strike (names withheld) said they are aware that they are holding the economy at ransom, and if the employer does not agree with their terms they will not get back to offices. She said after consultations they have realised that they earn very little as compared to other parastatals. “It is time that someone stands up, and this is the time now, we know that other employees are scared and some have been threatened but we know they will come on board,” she said.