World-class telecommunications giant Mascom Wireless is being sued for refusing to collect subscription fees from employees in Band 5 on behalf of a recognised trade union, Botswana Communication Workers Union (BOCOWU) arguing that they are management.
According to court papers served on the cellular phone network provider on Monday, the trade union accuses Mascom of violating labour laws of the country by contravening Section 48 of the Trade Union and Employers Organisations Act (TUEOA). Numerous attempts to get Mascom to effect the monthly deductions for union members in Band 5 failed leading to the current lawsuit, yet to be argued before court. Employees who form Band 5 comprise of many professionals such as Engineers, System Analysts, Database Administrators, Marketing Professionals and Shop Supervisors, who the union argues do not in any way form part of management. BOCOWU is represented by Kabo Motswagole while Mascom has roped in Collins Newman & Co, which has entered a notice of opposition to the application. The law firm is yet to file opposing papers.
An email exchange in April between Gape Sebonego – Mascom Chief HR Officer and the Chairman of the union Joseph Serema, seen by The Patriot on Sunday, reveals that the company insists that employees in Band 5 cannot become members of the union as they are excluded by Section 48 of the TUEOA. "We do not accede to the request by employees who fall in Band 5 that we should make deductions to the union on their behalf and we shall not process the deductions," wrote Sebonego on the night of April 22.
The trade union argues to the contrary, saying to suggest that anyone in Band 5 is a manager would be a serious misdirection on the part of Mascom. The union then cautions that the blanket exclusion of all employees in Band 5 regardless of their role is illegal. "It is not everyone in Band 5 who is management. We would concede that shop supervisors may fall under management, but engineers and systems analysts are clearly not," replied Serema on April 25.
Mascom is also accused of trying to cripple the trade union because its members form a significant part of Band 5 and also because this category of employees is the highest paid among non-manager employees. Removing them from the list of union members will deprive the union of sizeable subscriptions and sufficiently dent its income, said Serema. Therefore, BOCOWU wants court to declare the decision to treat all employees in Band 5 as members of management unlawful and contrary to legal precedent, and to set aside the refusal to effect such deductions. They also want court to order Mascom to facilitate the deductions immediately. The union also wants Mascom to be ordered to pay them the balance of months from the date of the first subscription to the date of the judgement for all its members in Band 5. The High Court has on numerous occasions in the past ruled on similar matters. One example is when Government of Botswana tried to stop collecting monthly subscriptions on behalf of public sector trade unions by withdrawing existing deduction codes.
Court found that the employer – government in that case – has an obligation to provide check-off services (collection of subscriptions) on behalf of any recognised trade union, which organises in her workplace. Section 48 of TUEOA provides: "In this section, member of management means an employee who (a) has authority, on behalf of his employer, to employ, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, terminate the employment of , reward, discipline or deal with the grievances relating to the employment of any fellow employees or effectively to recommend any such action or the manner in which such grievances ought to be dealt with, if the exercise by him of that authority is not merely of a routine or clerical nature but requires discretion; (b) participates in the making of a general policy regarding relations between his employer and his fellow employees or any of them; or (c) is employed in a capacity that requires him to have to have full knowledge of the financial position of the undertaking or enterprise in which he is employed or gives him free personal access to other confidential information relating to the conduct of his employer's business."
Mascom vs staff
Meanwhile, Mascom is currently embroiled in another tussle with junior staff that are represented by BOCOWU, over a unilateral decision by management to present a 3.5 per cent inflationary adjustment for 2016/17 financial year. The juniors complain that they are subjected to poor working conditions and low salaries while senior management is 'swimming in a lap of luxury' given their perks at the billion Pula blue-chip company. “It is even more painful that the majority shareholder in this company is Batswana through their pensions, and the Chairman of the Board is a citizen. We had hoped that the Board Chairman would intervene and listen to our grievances. But that does not look like it will ever happen,” said one dejected employee of the company. In response outgoing Mascom Board Chairman Carter Morupisi said: "The issue of complaints from staff over salary increase was recently (in April) brought to the attention of the board. We have since tasked the Human Resource Committee of the board to look into the matter and report back. We await feedback from them".
For a long time, junior staff has been complaining about low salaries at Mascom. A number of those interviewed but declined to be named were unanimous in accusing management of being too inward-looking. Except for this, they all concurred that Mascom could be one of the best companies to work for. In one of his recent blogs, Strive Masiyiwa – the founder of Mascom Wireless, boasts about how he clinched his first cell phone license with the company beating international telecommunication giants MTN, Vodacom, France Telecom (Orange) and Bharti. "If you’re going to play in the big leagues you must go the extra mile. Don't settle for mediocrity," blogs Masiyiwa. Mascom Wireless, a world-class business and the biggest operator in Botswana, was established in 1998. For a company that easily makes profits in region of P1 billion, and given a staff headcount of just under 300 employees, junior staff feel that Mascom can afford to match or even surpass the best paying companies in the country when it comes to staff emoluments. But the juniors complain that they cannot even afford a half decent smart phone, yet they work for a mobile telecommunication powerhouse. "The only benefit we used to get from Mascom was an entry-level smart phone every two (2) years, but even that was stopped over eight years ago," said one of them.
On the other hand, senior management is alleged to enjoy mouth-watering perks and benefits. Management gets top of the range smart phones on demand, with some getting one of the gadgets every four (4) or so months, together with tuition support of P15, 000 per term per child for up to four (4) dependent children. The juniors complain that while the company pays 50% towards their medical aid, the more affluent top management does not pay a single Thebe, as the company pays 100% for their medical aid. To cap it, management either gets top of the range luxury cars or a car allowance of over P11, 000 a month. If they get the car, which comes with free 300 litres of fuel per month and will be fully maintained by the company, they also have an option to buy it after three (3) years for a residual value of 10% of the cost of the car. "The rest of staff has to bid for the old fleet at book-value prices, with the same senior managers competing with us, and often using their financial muscle to out-bid the junior staff," said a source. Questions sent to Mascom communications department were not responded to at the time of going to print.
Board Chairman deposed
Meanwhile, the Board of Botswana Public Officers Pension Fund (BPOPF) – majority shareholder at Mascom Wireless – has reshuffled representation in the Board of Directors of the telecommunications behemoth. The Patriot on Sunday has it on good authority that the BPOPF board recently wrote to Mascom notifying them of the decision to replace old representative trustees who include Board Chairman Carter Morupisi. The new BPOPF representatives are CEO Boitumelo Molefe and trustees Brigadier Charles Nkele and Ishmael Selebogo. Morupisi, currently the Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP), is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees at BPOPF.