Panic sets in as economy bleeds jobs

Under threat: Workers at Morupule B are among thousands facing an uncertain future
Under threat: Workers at Morupule B are among thousands facing an uncertain future

The wave of retrenchments in the parastatal and private sectors has intensified, raising the number of job cuts since the middle of the year to more than 9,000, figures verified by Mmegi in the last fortnight indicate.

The list of entities shedding jobs includes BCL and Tati Nickel mines, Air Botswana, Banyana Farms, Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC), Botswana Power Corporation (BPC), Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) and the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC). Those planning on reviewing their structures in processes that could include retrenchments include the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board and Local Enterprise Authority. Even the Public Enterprises Evaluation and Privatisation Agency (PEEPA), which only has 26 staff members, is planning a restructuring.

According to Statistics Botswana, the numbers confirmed axed at BCL and Tati alone account for nearly half of the 12,773 employed within the mining and quarrying industry as at September 2015, which was the last formal employment update.

The numbers being shed in the parastatal sector, which include 105 at BHC, 172 at Air Botswana, a portion of Morupule B’s 400 workers and 200 farm workers at Banyana Farms, are a good proportion of the estimated 19,000 employees in the sector.

This week, commentators close to the latest developments told Mmegi that while publicly it appeared the job market crash was triggered by the historic closure of BCL and Tati mines, there was actually little connection. The mining sector has in fact been shedding jobs since 2015, when Boseto Mine, Mowana and Thakadu all closed owing to low copper prices and high operating costs. In 2016, BCL Mine and Tati’s Phoenix Mine had remained as the last operating base metal producers, before the latter closed in February this year.

Botswana Chamber of Mines CEO, Charles Siwawa said the job situation in the mining sector was grave.

“From an employment point of view, you are putting plus 5,000 people on the streets and that’s very large by any measure,” he said. “Unemployment is the big issue now and it’s coming at a time when general unemployment in the economy is already high.

“If there were other mines opening, you could slot the unemployed miners in, but we don’t have that right now.” For the Chamber of Mines, the fate of the thousands unemployed in mining is a grey area. At BCL Mine, the liquidator could recommend the rescaling of the mine, meaning some workers will be reemployed. A new investor, however, may decide to only keep the smelter (945 jobs) and shut the underground operations (3,000+ jobs). A new BCL could also adopt the pre-liquidation rationalisation plan that was aimed at cutting 1,800 jobs.

At Tati Nickel, the liquidator will almost certainly press ahead with the funding and reopening of Phoenix’ sister mine, Selkirk, but it is unknown whether the 700 jobs lost will all be reabsorbed. “It is difficult to respond to the question about where the unemployed go because there are many variables,” Siwawa said.

“Some skills may be retooled and workers re-employed in different positions. Some may have already reached their retirement age. Workers in generic positions such as accountants and electric engineers will have better prospects.” Mining’s troubles are clear, Siwawa said. Any mining operation, whether owned by government or the private sector will face suspension or closure when its revenues consistently fail to match costs, in the absence of a cash injection.

The parastatal sector, however, is a different kettle of fish. The crunch in jobs is unique from parastatal to parastatal, ranging from under-funding of operations, to divestment in key assets to the search for greater operational efficiencies.

The National Amalgamated Local, Central Government and Parastatal Workers Union - commonly known as Manual Workers union - represents the majority of workers here, although in several key cases, the workers have their own staff unions. The union has no voice at the BHC, Botswana Railways, BMC and BPC and these parastatals have their own staff unions. Veteran unionist and Manual Workers’ organising secretary, Johnson Motshwarakgole, told Mmegi the union had averted job losses at BAMB through negotiations and any exits will be voluntary.

“Workers will be redeployed and where people are unhappy with the move, we have negotiated a good package for their exit. Thus far, it appears only one manager has decided to take the package and everyone is staying put,” he said. At Banyana Farm, Motshwarakgole said the union had been able to negotiate improvements to rations for farm workers, better exit packages as well as the establishment of a trust, which will own a piece of the farm on behalf of former workers.

“At PEEPA, there are indications that they also want to retrench, but we will negotiate because their workers joined the union last week. “At WUC, there is talk of restructuring, but they have not said anything about cutting staff. When the time comes, we expect them to talk to us. Our relations with management there are cordial and we don’t expect anything less.”

Motshwarakgole said the job losses taking place in other parastatals and the packages agreed with workers were a matter of conjecture. “Our problem is that staff unions that negotiate on their own, and end up ba itshubela mo ntlong. They sign and it’s binding and we cannot help,” he said.

The veteran unionist continued: “What we have managed to achieve for our members is not representative of what is taking place in the general market. Right now, no one knows what the people at BCL or Tati received, but definitely there’s a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, as well as at Morupule B”.

The Manual Workers Union is scheduled to hold a three-day Unemployment Seminar at the end of the month featuring 100 unemployed graduates, 280 workers retrenched from the 2011 public service strike, scores of freshly fired mineworkers as well as experts from the University of Botswana and senior government officials.

“It’s not a forum to blame anyone, but we want solutions. We are in a crisis and every Motswana has a responsibility to play a role,” he said.

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