I have sat in a few meetings where the topic of creating a writers’ union in the country was discussed. Unions are formed to protect the rights of workers and to improve the working situation.
The thought is that collectively more can be done than can be accomplished by one individual. Despite the fact that the condition of all workers in all sectors is deteriorating, unions are, unfortunately, losing their power when they are most needed. Profit-driven organisations care more about upping their shareholders dividends and the exorbitant salaries of their CEOs than the conditions of their workers.
The situation for writers is even worse. Most of us work as freelancers fighting our battles on a case-by-case basis which is demoralising. To compound the situation there are many writers out there who write for free, to “gain exposure”, and people who view writing as a hobby and will accept deplorable conditions.
They are doing all writers a disservice by agreeing to substandard conditions. This makes the ability of professional writers trying to survive on their writing income that much harder.
The problem with organising artists in general is that most of us have individualistic tendencies, myself included. This makes organising us a bit like herding cats.
The situation of professional writers in Botswana is dire, though. I know from personal experience that as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers you have no pull whatsoever.
You must take it or leave it. I have had editors in almost every publication I have written for in this country praise me for my thoroughly researched articles, written well and delivered before deadline. I could organise a stack of references if I needed to, but if I think of taking that stack of references to an editor in the hope that I might increase the money I earn on my work, I would get a big shock. Even experienced writers, with a well-proven track record, must take what is given or walk away. I have walked away on numerous occasions but this, of course, does nothing for my anaemic bank account and does not improve the conditions of writers who follow behind me.
They organise professional workshops and publish a quarterly magazine. They provide funds for writers to visit schools to talk about their books.
They warn writers of difficult editors and publishers. This information can be very helpful. They also lobby for writers’ rights. For example, they have issued a “Writers’ Bill of Rights” that lists the basic rights their members demand, among them 50 percent royalties on ebooks.
Another active writers’ union is the National Writers Union in the United States. It is open to freelance and contract writers, journalists, book and short fiction authors, web content producers and poets. Their mandate is to defend and improve the economic rights of writers. One of their successes was a case taken to the Supreme Court in 2001 where a writer was suing a newspaper for not compensating them for selling or even asking permission for the electronic rights of articles that had appeared in their print editions. The NWU won the case on behalf of writers.
In Botswana, writers face many issues that have been discussed in this column and elsewhere. Is it time to create a Botswana Writers’ Union for professional writers to improve the standards of writing in the country as well as defend and improve the economics and working conditions? At the very least, somewhere there should be guidelines for minimum rates writers should accept for their writing and the very basic of conditions. If a publication is selling advertising space and employing people, then they need to pay writers properly; it is as simple as that.