Eleven former BCL Mineworkers committed suicide in the years since its closure in 2016 and about 19 suffered civil imprisonment for debts. More than 4,000 workers lost their jobs in the country’s biggest mass unemployment event and the Botswana Mineworkers Union is vowing ‘never again’. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
On that day, several Cabinet ministers addressed mineworkers at a clearing outside the main entrance and delivered the news that the 60-year-old mine would close with immediate effect. In fact, the ministers said, the mine had been declared closed 24 hours earlier at a Cabinet committee meeting held within a boardroom at BCL Mine.
More than 4,300 workers immediately lost their jobs, livelihoods, lifestyles, hopes and dreams, these were replaced by panic, disbelief, debts and agonising anxiety.
Botswana Mineworkers Union (BMWU) president, Joseph Tsimako says as the mine prepares to reopen courtesy of a successful bid by Premium Nickel Resources Botswana (PNRB), the experience of 2016 can never be repeated. The union is demanding several policy changes to ensure that workers are better insulated in the event of another mining company collapse.
“When a mine is undergoing liquidation or shut down, there are funds that these companies by law would have contributed for environmental rehabilitation and we are saying let us look at extending those funds to workers,” he says. “Protection should come from government, not from PNRB. “The only protection we can do on our side is to ensure there is a retrenchment agreement in place and we have also advocated that the law should talk about collective agreements so that we can protect workers.”
A liquidation fund for workers would raise their ranking in the hierarchy of parties that line up to get their dues when mines go into provisional or final liquidation. At present, when mines close, at the front of the queue are secured creditors, then banks, utility providers such as power, the tax-collecting agency, trade suppliers and others. Workers are usually found at the back of the queue.
Tsimako and BMWU executive secretary, Kitso Phiri are speaking from Union House, the mineworkers’ national headquarters located close to the main Selebi-Phikwe mall. When Mmegi visited Union House in mid-October 2016, the building was a hive of activity, as despondent former BCL workers gathered to understand their fate. At the time, the former workers were filling in slips with their details in the hope of some type of action to force the continuation of operations at BCL.
Petitions, engagements and appeals at different levels all successively failed to bear results and today, the former workers keep in touch via a WhatsApp group, updating each other on any developments. Eleven of their co-workers have committed suicide since the closure in 2016 and 19 have suffered the indignity of civil imprisonment for debts.
When the mine closed, the workers found themselves out in the cold.
The issue of a retrenchment agreement is a touchy subject amongst mineworkers. When it closed, BCL Mine had a retrenchment agreement with workers meaning that rather than terminal benefits, they would be paid an agreed package, which also included a clause requiring the mine to provide financial literacy to help former workers use their payouts optimally.
Government, as the sole shareholder of BCL Mine, opted to pay terminal benefits, a lower amount and has not recognised the retrenchment agreement, a situation that even today rubs the union the wrong way.
“If government had allowed that to happen, we would not have seen what happened to people,” Tsimako says. “Government has to learn a lesson of allowing the process to happen. Government was a shareholder in BCL and our agreement was with BCL management. “Today government says it was not part of that agreement, instead of owning up to it.”
Outside of the terminal benefits, financial support for BCL’s former workers has not been forthcoming, providing ominous warnings to other mineworkers in mining towns such as Orapa, Jwaneng and Sowa Town. While they stored away their pensions during their years of service, once retrenched, BCL’s former workers found that these monies were still out of reach even with the pension fund under liquidation.
“Contributions into that fund were stopped and the fund has been undergoing liquidation,” Phiri explains. “Most of the funds are under a preservation fund and pensions are subject to their own rules. “Members want to access these funds, but they are in a vested period and even if you have money there, there’s nothing that you can do and this is one burning issue.”
The experience of 2016 has left the BMWU demanding a stronger voice in policymaking around minerals. Tsimako says the union wants a seat in the High Level Consultative Council, the biannual public-private sector platform chaired by President Mokgweetsi Masisi and responsible for policy and reforms. The union also wants to participate in the Botswana Chamber of Mines (BCM) discussions on policy.
“We have met with the chamber to discuss our involvement in this forum. “We have agreed that going forward, we have to be involved in different committees to see what’s going on within the industry,” Tsimako says.
For his part, Phiri says the existing law could also be used to better protect workers if certain inactive clauses are activated. One of these involves the establishment of the Mining Bargaining Council, which would introduce common standards for mines across the country in terms of workers’ protection.
“We have approached the BCM and the ministry and are putting together a campaign to come up with this council because it’s provided for in law to address issues at that level,” Phiri says.
Between the extension of the rehabilitation fund to workers, honouring retrenchment agreements, securing a voice in policymaking bodies and setting up the bargaining council, the BMWU hopes its members will be better protected from future mining company collapses.
Phiri, however, says the mines themselves can go further to protect workers, without the need for law and policy changes.
“There’s a concept that has not been introduced within our industry as yet, known as an employee share scheme. “This has been done in South Africa, Germany and others where workers are given this scheme and it brings a benefit in that it is an incentive to workers’ productivity. “These schemes help workers become part of the operation’s growth and profits. “We have to advocate for that, and so far Debswana has been talking about it in our meetings with them.”
For now, the impending reopening of BCL is driving optimism amongst the former workers. PNR Botswana has agreed, in principle, to prioritise former BCL workers when it begins recruitment and full-time operations are due to begin in the next two to three years.
When they do, the new BCL will be a smaller operation than pre-2016, running a clean-tech, leaner entity entirely in private hands. Whatever ‘protection’ was provided by having government as a shareholder will be gone.
PNR Botswana will be taking over two of the three shafts at BCL Mine and at some point, the ageing mine will once again face closure as either its resource depletes, or the cost of extracting it outweighs the price at which the minerals are sold.
The protections Tsimako, Phiri and mineworkers, in general, are advocating for, will protect the town and its people from the disaster of 2016 and also provide a soft-landing for Jwaneng, Orapa, Sowa Town and others.
“Just because someone works at a mine, it does not mean they should suffer when things go wrong,” Tsimako says.