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BOFEPUSU must facilitate for essential service committee

Publishing Date : 14 November, 2016


While essential service provision stifles workers fundamental rights and potent weapon to engage in a strike for leverage purposes, mostly taking their demands to employers, it is equally imperative for trade unions particularly Botswana Federation of Public Service Union (BOFEPUSU) to call for the establishment of Essential Service Committee (ESC).

In an ideal utopian atmosphere workers need to be free to engage in a strike without governments necessarily enacting rigid acts making trade unions irrelevant and subsequently relegating workers to deplorable conditions of service. With the amendment of Trade Dispute Act (TDA) of 2016 which amongst other articles revised, rendered almost all public service employees essential service, what should therefore come from Bofepusu top brass is contemplation of pursuing for ESC.

The Federation should not even think of waiting for the outcome of legal case filed against the government for altering TDA without consulting trade unions. Whether Bofepusu wins or loses the case, essential service employees are part of Bofepusu cohorts, therefore these vulnerable employees need to be protected and cushioned against abuse by both the State and employers. The only viable remedy of bulwarking essential service employees from servitude is for Bofepusu to push for establishment of ESC.

Bofepusu should not see this noble move as a defeat of a battle to win essential service case because even without teachers there are vast numbers of essential service cadres amongst Bofepusu affiliates. For the case of our country, essential service schedule covers almost all public service. Bizarrely, the whole teaching fraternity is declared essential service.

That is, all teachers in a school including entire personnel working in the school from a gatekeeper, night watchmen, kitchenhands, groundsmen, bursar, switchboard operator, messenger, laboratory assistant, boarding master, matron, supplies officer, computer assistants and any other posts that may be created inside a school.

Basically, these essential service cadres’ rights have been limited to exercise their fundamental right to strike, however trade unions need to call for these citizens to receive essential service benefits to compensate for their constitutional rights infringements. The government has not even moved to apply statutory obligations of informing illiterate essential service employees of their expectations as essential service cadres.

The employer is legally mandated to translate and place visible laws, rules and regulations for every essential service worker to read the contents. Workers should comprehend these laws and know the consequences of not abiding to the bits and pieces of every article of essential service. These vulnerable workers can only be protected by trade union leadership by calling for the establishment of ESC.

Capital and trade unions should work in a level field without one sabotaging or taking advantage of one another. However capital by nature is avaricious, because it is preoccupied with making gigantic dividends accrued by lowing labour costs. It is only through withdrawal of labour by workers to attain their demands from employers and governments.

For International Labour Organisation (ILO) to adopt essential service principle was indeed a massive feat for both employers and governments, and a great loss to labour movements and workers globally, mainly because it is unthinkable for labour pundits to negotiate whether to render out or withdraw their treasured hands.

If workers feel unjustified by employers they have no option but withdraw labour. However after workers sold their soul to be deemed essential, they have to fight for decent work agenda through establishment of ESC, which should be a legally binding facility that critically looks after the welfare of essential service cadre.

One distinguished sociologist, Karl Polanyi developed a social theory known as countermovement. Polanyi postulated that worker rights antagonists on their endeavour to suppress workers will formulate and deploy tactics which relegate workers to servitude. In retaliation workers would consequently backlash with more radical, hostile and sophisticated rebuttals.

Interestingly, it is through this that I challenge Bofepusu as a formidable workers bloc to take the initiative by the scruff of the neck in demanding the establishment of a forum where essential service cadres conditions would be critically viewed for the betterment of its working force. Trade Union leadership should not either be fooled by employers representatives that essential service conditions of services and benefits could be discussed at the National Bargaining Council.

The principal purpose of ESC fosters cordial relations between trade unions and government/employers, therefore reducing chances of legal wrangles that may compromise productivity in the workplace. Conflicts bordering on essential service are better addressed at the level of ESC, legal cases which have recently become the order of the day for Botswana Industrial Courts could possibly become the thing of the past provided the establishment of ESC is done in good faith.

Secondly, the ESC will always come to diffuse misunderstandings emanating from failure to interpret labour laws pertaining to engaging in an action short of a strike. Drawing Bofepusu 2011 epic national strike, there was a clear standoff between trade unions and the employer over how essential service cadres should engage in a strike.

Trade unions firmly held that essential service workers are not tools therefore as human beings they should not be barred from striking, while the employer argued that essential service employees should be barred from participating in strikes because their services are essential, their services should not be interrupted because of their worth in political and economic space.

 Again trade unions believe that there should be a certain quota agreed to engage in a strike, for which the employer blatantly refute to the agreement.  Still it puts both trade unions and membership at a dilemma since the principle of “no work – no pay” still applies even if a certain numbers of essential service workers are to engage in a strike.

This principle is counterproductive to trade unions because the arrangement divides members, those remaining at workplace and those who will not be remunerated for engaging in a strike. In addition the ESC will have to come up with ways to determine who remains in the workplace and those engaging in a strike.

The latitude to remain in the workplace during a strike should not be the preserve of the employer, rather should fall squarely on the armpit of the ESC. The employer may target trade union ringleaders and make them remain in the workplace during the strike to weaken trade union organising and picketing.

Another mind boggling task of the ESC is to formulate collective agreements emanating from the discussions of the parties involved in the polemics. Such difficult assignment is the agreement on minimum service that should be left at the workplace to provide service to customers during the strike.

The essence of the strike is to suffocate services for capital, strangely capital would not in any given moment become a party to the agreement that hurts its operations. Similarly, it is basically illogically for labour to engage in a strike knowing that the daily operations of business would be normal. This jinx is normally left to the ESC to strike the balance without necessarily making one suffer over the other.

There is grave misconception from political and labour commentators in the country, of thinking that essential service employees are totally barred from engaging in a strike. During a legally sanctioned strike, there are specific numbers of essential service employees which remain in a workplace. Certain agreements need to be clearly laid down and agreed before a strike could take place.

These numbers are agreed by both the employer and trade union parties. Conversely, if it goes to the limit there is totally no need for workers bend to the rules of archaic laws enacted through dirty processes like with the case of TDA.



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