Public sector unions gain power


The Trade Unions and Employer’s Organisation Act of 2004 has opened opportunities for the public sector trade unions to identify with the power they have.

First, prior to the enactment of this law, the public service was not allowed to unionise. Civil servants had staff associations, with limited bargaining abilities.

Socially, financially, politically and otherwise, the public sector trade unions have become so powerful that after a decade, they are a force to reckon with. Their influence on the socio-political sphere has become visible. They are a powerful player that has nothing to beg even when facing the employer over the table.

Pundits fear that as the public sector trade unions continue to amass financial power and other gains, it may render them powerful and a danger to themselves, and their relationship with the employer may be strained.

Public sector trade unions, which cut across the public sector departments, include Botswana Teachers Union (BTU), Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Unions (BOSETU), Botswana Landboards, Local Authorities and Health Workers Union (BLLAHWU), Manual Workers Union, and Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU).

They have since formed a powerful umbrella federation known as Botswana Federation of Public Sector Trade Unions (BOFEPUSU), which has helped the five trade unions to speak with one voice because they have one employer.

Other than speaking with one voice, the five trade unions came together for the purposes of qualifying for the Bargaining Council where workers’ rights are negotiated with the employer.

Lately, public sector unions started to use their power as defenders of democracy to the extent that at the recent Goodhope/Mabule parliamentary by-election, trade unionists flexed their muscle and supported the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

The federation’s position was that it would not support Eric Molale of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) because of stand-offs with him when he was permanent secretary to the president and when he was minister for presidential affairs and public administration. The unions regard Molale as the workers’ enemy number one.

The workers’ threat to boost the opposition was not empty as there were reports that BOFEPUSU assisted UDC to round up workers transferred out of the Goodhope/Mabule constituency and helped them with transport and accommodation to ensure that they were available to cast their votes.

The BDP, represented by a powerful politician in Molale, lost a bid to regain their former constituency.

Its financial strength and its ability to organise is a factor that cannot be ignored as BOFEPUSU are a game changer even in a political landscape dominated by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) since 1966.

In 2009, the manual workers union, led by its organising secretary, Johnson Motshwarakgole, launched a campaign against some ruling BDP MPs, including members of cabinet. The list included Jacob Nkate, Kavis Kario, Neo Moroka, Shaw Kgathi, Lebonaamang Mokalake, Johnny Swartz, Phandu Skelemani and Mokgweetsi Masisi.

That year, Nkate, Kario, and Moroka lost elections. In 2014 Mokalake, Swartz and Skelemani were booted out. Two main survivors of this onslaught are Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the minister of defence, justice and security, Shaw Kgathi.

This must have been partly the reason why BDP secretary general Botsalo Ntuane, with his reform agenda, recently called for audience with the leaders of BOFEPUSU as things are no longer in favour of the ruling party.

At the centre of it all, the public sector unions made investments that reward them handsomely. The era of depending on the monthly member subscriptions is over as BOFEPUSU affiliates rake in multi-million Pula as return-on-investment.

They have also invested in the education of their members to appreciate the dynamics of labour law so that they approach pertinent issues from an informed point of view.

The financial muscle has enabled members of BOFEPUSU to set regional offices across Botswana to cater for the needs of their members. They offer a wide range of assistance. Even their corporate social responsibility says it all about their financial muscle. -- they have been ploughing back immensely.

During the recent Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) strike, BOPEU promised to cover up for the lost days of its members on strike when the employer threatened to deduct salaries and applying the no-work-no-pay rule.

Even during the recent BURS strike, BOFEPUSU leaders were not intimidated by the employer in anyway, as they firmly stood their ground and fought for their rights.

Because of its financial muscle, BOFEPUSU was recently able to fight to the bitter end at the High Court in Lobatse, in a case in which they were arguing that President Ian Khama’s unilateral decision on the working conditions of the civil servants was wrong.

Justice Michael Leburu of the Lobatse High Court then ruled that Khama has no power to decide on the conditions of public service including salaries, rather the Bargaining Council is the sole decision maker recognised by the law.

BOFEPUSU had fought hard for justice, which is not cheap at all in Botswana as mostly those who put their hands deeper into their pockets are able to get justice.

This month, Motshwarakgole is quoted widely in the local media stating that his union was challenging the appointment of judges of the Court of Appeal on the basis that their appointment was unconstitutional.

A political science and administrative studies lecturer at the University of Botswana, Theophilus Tshukudu, said in a paper he presented recently: “An influential public sector trade union in majority of cases puts employers under tremendous pressure because of their ability to dictate issues and withdrawal of labour”.

In a paper entitled, “Increasing public sector trade union power and its implication on labour and employee relations” Tshukudu said that labour relations are a collective arrangement that have to be nurtured by both parties.

“The volatile state of the relationship dictates that there is power balance between the interested parties. Having too much influence on the part of trade unions leads to a strain in the relationship resulting in mistrust and dishonesty demonstrated by the other party,” he said.

Motshwarakgole, who is also BOFEPUSU labour secretary, said that it is a wrong perception that trade unions have a lot of money.

He said: “People do not believe us when we say unions do not have money. The only thing that keeps us going is organisation.

“If you are organised you can combine whatever meager resources you have and deal with your mandate. That is why we have been able to fight the employer when we feel injustice has been done.”

He also said that BOFEPUSU does not have any ill motives against the current regime.

 “We only want to be engaged on issues affecting workers but the current regime is not ready to dialogue with us,” he said.

He added, “There are those who believe that we should not be taking the government to court on issues regarded to be not part of our direct mandate which is wrong. We have to fight every form of injustice perpetuated by the current regime because it also affects the workers one way or the other.”

He does not believe that unions are slowly becoming powerful more than the employer.

“If we were powerful we could not have settled for the six percent salary increase which we believed was low, especially considering the salary hike for legislators. We do not wish to be powerful than the employer,” he said adding that fighting for justice should not be confused to trying to be powerful.

Political analyst Anthony Morima also believes that unions have the financial muscle, which helps them to fight for their rights.

“After the unions converted from associations they were able to mobilise members and resources which has given them more strength,” he said.

Through their strength, the unions have been able to challenge government on certain things they feel are not done properly. And this he is positive has enhanced democracy.

Morima said he believes that the government has enjoyed many benefits than losses from unions.

“By taking government to court unions are providing checks and balances. This helps the government to correct itself,” he said.

He added that if unions stood up against government when they feel that their rights have been infringed, the government would review its stance. If the government respects the rights of workers it will help the government and employee relations improve.

Unions have also come up with various investment and welfare schemes, which has helped support government’s efforts to support workers.

“My only problem with unions is their alignment with the political parties. If the relationship is not well managed it will backfire in future like it is happening with the ANC and COSATU in South Africa. When the other party feels that their interests are not well presented it can cause conflicts.”

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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