Public sector unions, achievements post 2011 strike

The monumental strike of 2011
The monumental strike of 2011

FRANCISTOWN: April 18 will mark five years since Botswana’s civil servants strike termed ‘the mother of all strikes’ took place.

The strike was scheduled to last 10 days but extended to eight weeks as government would not entertain thoughts of meeting workers’ demands. More than 90,000 civil servants across the country took part in the strike. The members belonged to the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU).

At its peak, the workers chanted struggle songs that, in some cases, had obscene words directed at people in authority who were considered to be against improving the workers’ welfare.

The main target was President Ian Khama who was on a countrywide mission to justify why the workers’ salaries could not be increased. Khama dismissed talk that the workers were not properly remunerated.  At one point the protesting civil servants barricaded roads with stones and burned tyres. The strike turned violent and riot police were called in to restore order.

The strike was reminiscent of the Arab Spring. Some striking workers were detained and charged for masterminding the violence but the workers’ determination to defy the authorities symbolised their maturity. At first, the workers complained about low wages but as the strike intensified, they included poor welfare in their grievances; and they charged that the government developed a bad attitude towards them.  Government services, especially health and immigration, were affected. Most government departments operated with skeletal staff.

The strike galvanised outsiders, as opposition parties joined the fray. Worse still, some ruling party functionaries offered veiled support to the civil servants. The relationship between the government and the workers deteriorated when the government accused its employees of partisan politics when they were expected to be apolitical. On the other hand, employees said as citizens of the country, they couldn’t divorce themselves from politics.

In fact, the BDP’s performance during the 2014 general elections reflected the effects of the strike that took place three years earlier. During the strike, BOFEPUSU said it would ensure politicians who were deemed anti-workers’ rights were voted out.

The strike also attracted international attention and Botswana’s perceived arrogance towards employees and the bad labour practices were laid bare.

Five years on after the historic industrial action, what has changed for the workers? According to Tobokani Rari, BOFEPUSU secretary general who was among people who coordinated the 2011 strike, nothing much has changed with regards to labour relations between government and trade unions.

“Our government did not learn any lesson from the industrial action,” he said. “It is doing all it can to close the democratic space of trade unions based on events that took place after the strike. After the strike the government tried to stop trade unions from enjoying the rights to secondment as well as using a stop order facility.”

Most differences between unions and government are also resolved in court as a result of government’s unwelcoming attitude to unions.

“We had to go to court to stop the President of the country from making pronouncements about matters still under discussion by the Bargaining Council and we won,” he said.

Rari said that if the government was tolerant to trade unions, the President could have stopped making pronouncements on matters before the Bargaining Council without BOFEPUSU having to go to court.

He added: “Now, government wants to engage a middleman to regulate the stop order facility. We are against this because we have the right to coordinate the stop order facility. That right is enshrined in the ILO Conventions. We see the move as an angry reaction to the strike.”

Rari said the strike also bore positive results: “Since the industrial action, BOFEPUSU members and Batswana in general have become politically conscious. Their political awareness is growing. I am optimistic that the workers and Batswana will continue to lend their support to leaders who want to address their plight.

“Get me right, BOFEPUSU is not affiliated to any party but our membership decide which party they should lend their support to, based on their interests. The federation’s members continuously review the support they lend to parties. BOFEPUSU has been rocked by unrest since the 2011 industrial action. The unrest led to the departure of BOPEU from the federation.

However, Rari described union wars as a minor setback: “I do not want to dwell much on this subject because of its sensitivity,” he said. “I see a huge hand from the government in union wars. The government is trying to divide us.

“However, every struggle has small wars. Again I see small differences between unions which will not affect the ultimate goal of liberating workers from their struggles.”

BOPEU president Andrew Motsamai whose union recently withdrew its membership from BOFEPUSU but was instrumental during the industrial action was not ready to comment. After several attempts to get his comment, Motsamai said that Mmegi could progress with its publication because he was still engaged.

Dr Kaelo Molefhe, a political science and public administration lecturer at the University of Botswana who specialises on trade union issues, said although the strike has brought positives to trade unions. some issues were still lagging behind.

“The relationship between the government and trade unions is not collaborative,” he said. “Both parties have to realise that they have common interest which is to improve the welfare of the workers and as such they should embrace a collaborative relationship.”

Molefhe however said that unions helped to raise awareness about the role of unionism to both their members and public.

“Since the industrial action, trade unions have now become economic and political actors,” he added. “They can even go to court to question certain things that are deemed to be out of order by the government. This is good because unions should protect democracy.” He also said BOPEU and BOFEPUSU should move swiftly and resolve their differences. “Obviously within umbrella unions it is inevitable for parties to differ,” he said. “However, the differences should be addressed quickly because if not managed well they can paralyse trade unions. BOFEPUSU and BOPEU cannot expect to have cooperation with the employer when they cannot cooperate with each other.”

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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