Quiet sabre-rattling in banking sector

Number crunching: Keabetswe says 2015/ 16 wage talks are set to proceed. PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
Number crunching: Keabetswe says 2015/ 16 wage talks are set to proceed. PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO

Nearly each and every single thebe of the P57.6 billion Finance Minister Kenneth Matambo plans to spend in the next financial year will pass through one local bank employee or the other. The country’s 4,500 or so bank workers, however, have their own ‘budgets’ on their minds. Botswana Bank Employees Union general secretary, Lebogang Keabetswe speaks to Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, about the wage negotiation season

Like the economy, bank workers live in a perpetual cycle.

Every summer, bank workers square up to their employers in a now familiar tussle over wage reviews. Ideally, both sides would want to finalise talks before the onset of the new financial year in April, but traditionally the talks drag far into the new financial year and necessitate backpay sometime in November.

In the past, protracted negotiations would mean bank workers received large, pooled sums of backpay in November, handily in time for the festive season. So common did the cycle become, that many began to budget for the festive backpay.


After the payment of the backpay, unionists would return to the negotiating table and resume discussions for the following financial year.

The cycle has been broken, says Botswana Bank Employees Union (BOBEU) General Secretary, Lebogang Keabetswe. The union represents about 2,400 of the estimated 4,600 plus bank workers in Botswana, with members across six banks. Talks for recognition are being finalised with two more banks.

“In 2014, for the first time in years, we managed to conclude wage reviews (for the 2014/15 financial year) with all the banks on time,” she reveals.

“That meant workers did not have to wait for backpays, which have tax implications and erode purchasing power.”

The news, however, did not generate the unanimous cheers from bank workers as the union’s leaders expected. Used to receiving the festive season backpays, some workers believed their leaders – freshly in office after congress – had sacrificed prudence on the altar of expedience.

“With every change, there’s resistance and people were not quite happy with the way the wages were done within time,” Keabetswe acknowledges.

“We came from people being used to getting backpays in November and not just the increase in April.

“We have to educate our members on the time factor and the fact that we cannot keep negotiating with banks for that long.

“There are other more equally important matters like policy reviews that govern our stay at these banks that we need to dedicate our time to as well.”

Beginning last April, bank workers began enjoying wage reviews ranging from four to 14 percent, with some across the board and others based on performance.

However, of the six banks covered, one has given the union sleepless nights in negotiations over the years. In 2014, the union and the bank locked horns in arbitration at labour after a deadlock on talks, with the judgment coming out earlier this year.

“It’s the lowest paying bank in the market and when we started, we used a best practice approach to try and align the pay with other banks and we have seen that won’t work overnight,” says Keabetswe.

 

“We have decided to review the way we negotiate for increments. When we began, our figures were far from each other and the judgment said what we wanted was unreasonable and what the bank was offering was equally unreasonable.

“The judgment also noted that there was no willingness from the bank to show why they could not afford what we wanted or even to negotiate.”

When talks with the bank began last year, the union started at 20 percent, before lowering their demands to 17. The bank, on the other hand, offered a total of six percent, being a three percent wage review and a three percent hike in the pension contribution.

“They never moved from that. The judgment eventually awarded the workers eight percent and we will have separate discussions on the pension. Workers were back-paid for this for the period covering April to December.”

Negotiations over wage review are not always acrimonious. The union sealed a two-year wage review with one bank last year, which means for 2015/16 a tentative deal is already in the works, pending revision of figures.

Talks for the 2015/16 reviews are already underway with BOBEU eager to seal commitments in time for April. At present, preparation meetings have already been held with Barclays and another is pending with Standard Chartered.

“We should do all the banks between February and March so that people are paid in April,” Keabetswe says resolutely.

For 2015, the union plans to increase its membership density activities, where it aims to raise the number of unionised members within banks, while also brainstorming around the issue of proportional representation of banks within its executive committee.

Plans are also underway to revive dormant structures in the union that are constitutionally provided for but non-existent.

“Right now, the only structure is the ExCo,” says Keabetswe.

“More and more youths are coming into the union, but in terms of activism, it is the elders doing the work. We are looking at setting up the youth committee and the women’s committee as well, which the constitution provides for.

“These were resolutions from the congress.”

The unionists believe having consolidated their structures and beefed up their membership, they will be able to better tackle banks and improve the workers’ lot in 2015 and beyond.

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