Artful dodging afoot in civil service

Unionised public servants have every right to be apprehensive about the amendments to the Trade Disputes Act, which passed its first reading in Parliament on Monday.

Both the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) and the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU), say the amendments before the House were materially different from the ones presented to the Labour Advisory Committee, which they are part of.

Of contention is the addition of four cadres being; teaching, state broadcasting, as well as immigration and custom services, to the already lengthy list of essential services.

Under existing legislation, professions within the civil service categorised as essential services are defined as being of critical importance to the economy. Strikes within these cadres are not legal because they are viewed as being against the national interest.

Civil servants’ cynicism is somewhat justified, when the chronology of events leading to the June 2011 statutory instrument introducing essential services is assessed. The instrument came soon after the ‘Mother of all Strikes’ in which government services staggered to a halt as unions mobilised the country’s largest strike.

The instrument was viewed as an effort to withdraw certain employees’ rights to strike, particularly the teaching service who comprise the largest and most militant members of the civil service.

Government lost its first attempt to classify the teaching service as essential, at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, whose judgements struck down the June 2011 statutory instrument in its entirety. According to both BOFEPUSU and BFTU, the amendments to the Trade Disputes Act that they were given last year excluded teaching services, state broadcasting, and immigration and custom services. They have evidence to this effect, in the form of a draft Trade Disputes Bill showing amendments that exclude the four contentious cadres.

The two unions are now lobbying legislators, the Speaker of the National Assembly and International Labour Organisation to throw out the amendments.

In the dust-storm of legalese and politics, that is sure to accompany attempts to throw out this bill, it is important to realise what is truly at stake here: a naked attempt to undermine the social contract between the country’s largest employer and its employees. It is an attempt to take away a fundamental and natural right that should be treated as inalienable to workers – the right to withhold their labour in the face of conflict. When this right is taken away, workers are transformed into slaves and their families into fellow bondservants. Private companies, who take their cue from government, will eagerly emulate Big Brother’s example!

Legislators across the political divide need to look beyond the smoke and mirrors and see these amendments for what they really are: the blatant theft of workers sole God-given asset – their labour.

Passing these amendments will be akin to transforming Botswana into the oppressive collective farms or kolkhozy of 1930s communist Russia.

Today’s thought

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”

 - John F. Kennedy

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