Unionists say at least 20,000 workers have already been fired or put on unpaid leave, as the economy sheds jobs despite government unveiling wage subsidies, loan guarantees and tax concessions worth up to P3 billion to beat the coronavirus.
Ahead of today’s lockdown, leaked internal memos from several companies showed that workers were being put on unpaid leave, or having their contracts terminated under the “no work, no pay” policy. While the tourism sector has been hardest hit by the coronavirus, jobs cuts have occurred at even seemingly insulated sectors such as government-sponsored educational institutions.
A wave of suspicious retrenchments has been created, angering the State which is bearing the brunt of measures to support jobs and the economy.
At some companies, workers were told to sign resignation letters and take non-negotiable packages ahead of the lockdown.
Unveiling government’s multibillion pula response on Wednesday, Finance Minister, Thapelo Matsheka alluded to companies that were not only, not contributing to the COVID-19 Relief Fund government has set up, but were also illegally and arbitrarily firing workers.
“Are you with us?
“When trouble comes, do you rush to fire workers and say your government is not helping me?
“We are noting this. It will not go un-noted,” he said, adding that was the reason government’s efforts were focussed on reaching the worker.
Yesterday evening, Employment, Labour Productivity & Skills Development minister, Mpho Balopi told Mmegi that for certain entities, the sudden retrenchments were unjustified.
“I have been running businesses for more than 20 years and there’s no way that when there’s a problem, within a month, when it’s a sound and proper business, that you’ll not even be able to even get an overdraft from the bank and negotiate a rate, or have reserves or sell your assets, even personal assets that you have acquired through running that business, so that you continue running that business and ultimately continue with employing people.
“We have seen even some big companies which we know have reserves, which had been buying assets all over and doing stuff, all of a sudden they want to retrench everyone.
“Whether it was a way of putting pressure on government or indeed they were scared of what might be coming, but you cannot react so abruptly on something you don’t understand,” he said.
He added: “There are businesses that are filthy rich and people have toiled to make money for them, but when it comes to them making money available for people, it becomes something else.
“We will see how to deal with that. For me there should be punitive measures for those who ill-treat workers, even up to their licences being taken.”
Balopi said as social partners, government would continue to engage the private sector and labour movements, but expressed disappointment that some private entities appeared to be acting in bad faith.
“April is here and you know that the money you realise in April is not worked for in April.
“If you perform badly or haven’t traded in April, we understand it should be difficult in May. But the people worked for that in March and they must be paid end of April. “The hard labour of people being fired in April was done in March, but now the owner gets that money on his own in April.
“We however do want to applaud those who have heeded our call on being lenient in the way we look at this thing as we engage to ensure continuity and reduction of job losses.” Balopi added that government had the “teeth” to verify whether retrenchments were legitimately done or not. Mmegi is informed Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) records could, when needed, be used to show companies’ health.
The P1 billion wage subsidy announced this week will only be available for companies that do not retrench and will be administered by the BURS.Botswana Federation of Trade Union’s general secretary, Thusang Butale said the labour body’s estimates showed that at least 20,000 workers were either jobless or not being paid due to companies reacting to the coronavirus.
“There’s no social dialogue, it has been shelved. Some employers are heartless and greedy and they don’t want to lose so they get rid of workers,” he told Mmegi.
“Some have taken this as an opportunity to restructure or get rid of undesirable employees. Workers are being retrenched without the Commissioner of Labour being informed.”
Business Botswana, which sat in a pre-lockdown tripartite forum with government and the two main federations recently, believes most of the retrenchments are legitimate. The organisation’s CEO, Norman Moleele told Mmegi that while some employers had been “irresponsible” the majority were unable to keep workers and operations going due to the pandemic.
“Most of the employers that we know who have shed jobs have been hit by the virus, such as those in the tourism sector,” he said. “They are not doing it on purpose. If you are operating a hand to mouth business and you know that you will not be getting any income over the shutdown, you have little choice.
“This thing has taken everyone by surprise and it’s not something that you will have put in your risk metrics for.” Economists estimate that the economy will take a hit of anywhere between P2 billion and P40 billion in terms of the impact of the coronavirus, depending on how long the pandemic’s effects last on local shores.