Whose voice is BOFEPUSU representing?

Following the controversial BOFEPUSU elective congress two weeks ago, where members or delegates of the five unions affiliate members were denied their right to elect their preferred potential candidates, it is evident that there are more questions than there are answers.

Please allow me to further discuss challenges that public sector unions are faced with and allow me further, to provide alternative and lasting solutions to this predicament in which we (ordinary members) find ourselves. ( Remo gare ga naka tsa Nare).

The working class in this country is facing difficult times, there is lack of sufficient representation of the workers, the workers need a serious Trade Unions and a Federation which is duly recognised by International Labour Organisation and Government, as the national labour centre.

Looking at the difficulties and problems that the working class is currently facing from the point of view of liberalising them from oppression; we should note and appreciate that the only strategy which workers may presume is to bring themselves closer to the boarders of new consciousness movement in order to witness evolution (social reforms).

I am of the opinion that, some veteran unionists may have overlooked the fact that the struggle for liberalisation is all about change in power, and certainly, should the struggle succeed, there will be victory and the efforts of having trade unions in the public service will be achieved anytime soon.

As a result, some of them will have to relinquish power voluntarily and/or through election process, and will have to accept defeat when the time comes.


Karl Marx Theory

The ideology of forming trade unions was developed to counter the fact that too much power resided in the hands of the employer. In the new era, power no longer resided in the hands of the employer, now it is in the hands of union employees and union officials who were not democratically elected into office. The question which arises now, is; whose Voice is BOFEPUSU current leadership representing since it has voted itself into power?


Trade Union

In line with the Marxist Theory, it was proposed that a single general union should unite the working class in a particular country or area, to oppose the capitalist class.

A trade union, as we understand the term, is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives (Finnemore; 2009).

Generally, trade unionism remains an important institution, which plays a major role in economic and political development in any given the country and an indispensable institution for the protection of workers’ rights and working conditions. However, the politicisation of the labour movements, which was a strength during the political turmoil (apartheid era) in South Africa is no longer necessary, and it has the potential to erode the power of the workers.

 The strength of trade unions depends greatly on internal cohesion, grasp of labour economic issues and the extent to which they can sufficiently represent their members; and I am of the opinion that this seems lacking in most public sector unions. 

Our union (BOPEU) has registered as a general union and not a craft or skill-based union, and it is now struggling for its legitimacy, recognition and consultation as a social partner with Government in socio-economic development and nation building as a leading union in the labour front in this country.

 The union (BOPEU) has the potential to organise and unite the working class in Botswana, and this is why I am pursuing the course of educating union members about their rights and obligations. I therefore urge union members who really want sufficient representation and respect to join BOPEU; a union of choice for public service employees.


Trade union federation

Individual unions often merge with other unions to form a Federation of trade unions, so as to enhance their power and status. Therefore the primary motives for forming a Federation varies and may range from simply providing a forum for collective bargaining purposes in a particular industry or sector, and a classic example of a sectoral federation is Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions commonly known as BOFEPUSU.

The formation may also be for the purpose of creating an umbrella body that will coordinate and facilitate political and economic policy at national level. An example of a national federation in our country is Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) while in South Africa, COSATU is a perfect example.

National federation plays a major role in society and it may have  an influence both in legislative change and in political climate; and on joining a union, employees have legitimate and reasonable expectations that they will enjoy all rights of membership including voting and being sufficiently represented.

 Trade unions and trade unions federation have a major role in providing support to their members to secure their workplace and to secure decent work for them, higher and equitable salaries for members. I must emphasise that, the power of a trade union, or trade union federation, resides in the size of its membership, its affiliated unions’ membership, capacity to organise and mobilise employees across the sectors of the economy and the society.

In South Africa, COSATU has gained power and has played a major role in influencing the direction of transformation and economic restructuring because the federation strived to combat divisions amongst the working class, irrespective of their sector and/or political ideology or beliefs.


BFTU Scope of Representation

BFTU is the only federation at national level that is both recognised locally and has a seat in the Labour Advisory Council. The federation is also recognised regionally, including by COSATU, and by International Labour Organisation (ILO) of which Botswana is a member.

In joining BFTU, public sector unions will have representatives in the Labour Advisory Council, and will be able to play a major participative role in internationally recognised for a, such as ILO. All the benefits stated here are not extended to BOFEPUSU because of its status as a sectoral federation.

Public Sector Unions and ordinary members must see their interest beyond those of advocating for improved terms and conditions of service in the Public sector, but should rather look at a pivotal role that they may play in national development, labour economic restructuring, legislative reforms and transformation.

To date, public sector unions affiliated with BOFEPUSU have not been able to use the collective bargaining process to benefit the workers, and I believe one of the contributory factors to this is their limited experience in the negotiation processes. Unionisation is a new phenomenon in the public sector; another contributory factor is fragmentation of unions and political intolerance


Extension of Democracy

My view is that it is insufficient for union members to exercise their right only to vote union leadership at various structures and then leave everything, including decision-making to elected union officials. As a unionist who subscribes to evolutionary system (social reforms) rather than revolutionary system (militant radicalist system), I am of the opinion that the enhancement of internal cohesion, democracy and economic development within union structures is the real remedy to this situation.

Karl Marx argued that labour is fundamentally a creative act and noted that the capitalist system has destroyed this creativity by alienating employees from the work they performed. He also emphasised that this occurred through employees loosing ownership and control of the production process.

Public sector Unions have created monsters within themselves, and members have lost ownership and control of their unions. The production process being trade unionism has been destroyed.  The Trade unions to a larger extent are in the hands of self-centered individuals - the capitalist class - whose focus is to enrich themselves.What causes  more pain is that ordinary union members (creators of wealth) live in abject poverty and are financially embarassed, but their unions are boasting of massive wealth.

My humble request to the working class (union members) is that they can only find a new sense of belonging and home in BOPEU and in BFTU, the latter being the sole national federation in the country.  Comrades, tshabelang kwano; where you will find respect, peace of mind and have a say in the decision- making process, including elections, without fear or favour.

*Oaitse Diane Patle is Branch Chairperson BOPEU Gaborone.

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