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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Workers seek political representation

In an unprecedented move, the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU), the umbrella organisation of the country's seven workers' unions, is seeking political representation in parliament.
Rodrick Mukumbira

While in other countries trade unions have sought political representation through the ballot box, BFTU has approached the Botswana leader, President Festus Mogae, and requested him to consider allocating one of the four nomination parliamentary seats to workers 2004 is election year in Botswana.

Under the Botswana constitution, a President can nominate four non constituency parliamentarians based on their contributions academically, socially and economically. The federation, however, says is has its own candidate.

BFTU says the politics of "party first and only" no longer have a sensible place in the country. "Our democracy will never be meaningful if citizens are expected to cast their votes and then withdraw from the process until the next five years because there is no system to capture their ongoing participation in decisions that affect how they live," says Ronald Dust Baipidi, the BFTU president. "In requesting direct political representation, the BFTU wants to give workers active participation in the democratic process."

On May 1, the workers organisation unveiled a six-year blueprint position paper dubbed Workers Agenda 2010, in which the issue of political representation was clearly underlined.

The paper, a 68-page document, spells out ways of transforming BFTU from what union leaders called "toothless" to an organisation that "really represents workers". "Our organisation has remained toothless because of lack of a firm political will and structures capable of articulating and translating words into actions', Baipidi says.

The federation says it has undergone a soul-searching exercise to define what it is and what it stands for and it has realised that it is not in the position to tackle issues affecting the workers.

Also central in the position paper is that BFTU wants to assist the country's education system, which it says is in limbo and not producing graduates that can be absorbed in the country's labour market. The federation feels that the country is failing to create employment for its people but for foreigners because of the poor education system.

BFTU also aims at assisting in reforming the public sector to make it efficient, responsible, effective and competitive. In a country widely renowned for its democratic principles, the public sector has been accused of bureaucratic tendencies and BFTU says it aims for the creation of a customer driven and focused public sector by implementing what it terms a customer charter programme for agencies interacting daily with the public.

BFTU has long accused the government of neglecting the workers focusing more on attracting investors. Baipidi says the country's labour laws are rather mediocre as they fail to protect workers from investors "who only come into the country to profit".

In a country identified as one with the best performing economy in Africa, hardly a week passes without newspapers carrying articles of workers' exploitation. Cases of exploitation range from low wages to unfavourable working conditions.

The Botswana Teachers' Union has been fighting running battles with the government since 2002 over low salaries. The Botswana Mining Workers' Union, made up mainly from employees in diamond mines - the country's lifeline, have been threatening to strike since October 2003 over the differences in bonuses awarded to top management and the general workers.

The mineworkers union feels that there is favouritism in Debswana, a 50-50 partnership between the government and South Africa's mining giant, De Beers, whereby foreigners are paid more than locals.

In Botswana, a company can get away with not paying overtime workers' wages. The government only negotiates for wages for lowly paid workers such as maids and herdsmen (traditionally, Botswana was a cattle country before the discovery of diamonds in 1969). Other classes of workers have to negotiate with their employers.

The Central Statistics Office says since 2003 most workers' standards of living have been deteriorating. BFTU says it has fought tooth and nail, in vain, for an audit of all labour laws and statutes to ensure conformity with the international standards to which Botswana is a signatory.

"We are failing to commend Mogae's government because of the failure to fulfil promises aimed at amending our labour laws," says Baipidi.

Taolo Lucas, a University of Botswana academic, is however against workers having their own political representative in parliament. He says workers should rather gather behind a political party whose ideas are compatible with their needs.

Although welcoming the call by BFTU saying that it is the right of every worker to participate in the democratic process, Lucas says a political representative is more radically and would destroy the democratic gains the country has achieved since independence in 1966.

"Workers who do not vote are anti democracy and are essentially anti-workers but this doesn't mean Botswana is ready for radical parties like those in Zimbabwe and Zambia (referring to the Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Zambia's Movement for Multi-party Democracy)," he says.

With general elections scheduled for November and Mogae being favoured to be voted into a second term in office, the President would have to play a serious balancing act to accommodate workers and party faithful.

According to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) manifesto unveiled in April, workers consist of two-thirds of its electorate. But analysts say the BDF has traditionally dished out the nomination parliamentary seats for political appeasement.

Addressing workers during a poorly attended May Day celebrations in the capital, Gaborone, Mogae spoke of workers being "partners" with the government. He said his government has amended labour laws and "workers are now legally recognised as privileged creditors".

He also said that it is now possible for elected officials of trade unions to become employees of their union.

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