Has Masisi waged war against unions?

Mokgweetsi Masisi PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG
Mokgweetsi Masisi PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG

FRANCISTOWN: Leading to the 2019 general election, President Mokgweetsi Masisi vowed that if voted into power he would commit to his pro-working class agenda and cultivate a harmonious working relation with trade unions.

Soon after being ushered in as State President on a substantive basis after the 2019 general election, one of the key promises Masisi made was the resuscitation of the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC).

However, almost three years later the PSBC is not yet fully functional. Masisi also said that consultation and dialogue would be the cornerstone of his relationship with trade unions and by extension public servants. However, the President appears to be struggling to keep his promises.

Since the 2019 general election, Masisi’s relationship with the trade unions and public servants cannot be characterised as a healthy one at all. His government has continued to publicly attack workers for various reasons.

The President’s attacks on the workers escalated to a new level last Saturday. In his remarks when addressing the nation, Masisi labelled the current crop of workers as unproductive and corrupt. In a nutshell, Masisi said that many government initiatives have failed to bear any fruit over the past 30 years because of an unproductive and corrupt civil service. In his address to the nation, he said “We find evidence of a political leadership that for the last 30 years, has increasingly fallen into the clutches of an under-performing public service that has grown more robust in obstruction than in productivity.

We find an evolving culture of a democratically elected but increasingly pliable political leadership of the last three decades, held to ransom by groups of abrasive technocrats in low-productivity mode, albeit with rising incidences of corruption.” The President’s public address came just days after trade unions warned anti-labor politicians that they should change tact and address the plight of the workers.

The trade unions emphasised that labor issues often drive their endorsements of political candidates. Since the 2019 election, Masisi has also been criticised for using wrong avenues or channels to communicate important messages relating to the public servants. In one of such incidents early this year, the government announced that it would soon embark on a process to review the size of the public sector. The Botswana Federation of Public Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) said that the announcement has caused panic and confusion among civil servants. “The employer has not been engaging trade unions as representatives of employees on this matter and as such it’s our strong view that Minister Matsheka should go back to Parliament and withdraw the sentiments and apologise to the nation and the public service,” Rari said.

Such attitude by Masisi has led to many saying that he and his government do not value organised labor or respect the working class. In fact, many believe that with his recent remarks, Masisi has seemingly waged war against public service trade unions and this could set the tone for the start of a very unpleasant relationship between the unions and government.

There is a perception that President Masisi has committed a monumental blunder and unions might launch various revengeful measures against his regime. Yesterday, BOFEPUSU spokesperson Mogomotsi Motshegwa came closer to conceding that trade unions would launch retaliatory counter measures against the Masisi led government.

Motshegwa pointed out that Masisi could not have singled out workers for the decline in the overall performance of various areas driving the economy of the country. According to him, lack of consultation among trade unions and regular attacks of the civil service are a clear indication that the government has waged war on trade unions.

“ Key trade unions in the country will be convening a meeting in less than two weeks’ time to discuss the President’s growing attacks on the working class and how to deal with them. I cannot detail the agenda of the meeting for now but all I can say is that as trade unions it is important to bring the collective strength of working people together to fight back against any form of injustice by the employer,” he said.

He added, “we cannot take kindly to the government’s continued attacks on trade unions or the working class. What is even more worrying is that the direct employer of public servants, the Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM) has never raised some of these issues (relating to productivity) during engagements with trade unions.” Motshegwa said that the public service needs to be entirely overhauled. He added that the government should entirely be blamed for the laxity in the civil service.

“The performance management system used in the public service is outdated. The remuneration system is also not up to standard. People stay in one salary scale for a longer period of time. Employees are also over worked because there is shortage of manpower. These are some of the factors demoralising civil servants.

Various consultants such as Pemandu have long recommended that the whole public service be overhauled but the government is still reluctant to implement the recommended changes,” he explained. Still on the matter, Botswana Federation of Trade Unions’ (BFTU) secretary general Thusang Butale also said that he is deeply worried by lack of a well-established culture of open consultations as well social dialogue by government towards employees or trade unions.

“The gap (lack of consultation) is widening. It is very worrying that the government has shown little signs to stop its trend of not consulting workers. Botswana as a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has committed to consultation of labor unions and business partners among others.

Convention 144 of the ILO borders on the spirit of consultation to workers and other social partners by governments. If workers and other social partners are not  key issues affecting the working class or development issues we will not move forward as a nation.

Workers and government should see each other as partners in the development of the nation, not enemies,” Butale said. He added, “one would think that trade unions should have been thoroughly engaged before the President addressed the nation with reference to the laxity of the public service. Unions would have shared their opinions on the perceived laxity of trade unions had they been engaged. It was grossly unfair for the President to attack workers without first engaging them or their representatives.”

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