The right to strike: a mirage

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It is without doubt that the state in Botswana seeks to see the withering away of the right to strike. The industrial relations posture of the state enshrined in the labour laws of Botswana and state-unions relations policy since independence as well as the latest developments are instructive. The state has an inextricable alliance with domestic and international bourgeoisie and unwaveringly protects the interests of capital. Labour organisations have been firmly proscribed in the public service for a long time through draconian legislation to create a more favorable environment for private businesses. It was only in 2008 that unionism was permitted in the public service. The right to strike was impossible to enjoy for purpose of collective bargaining with the employer; the law almost outlawed the right to strike for workers in both the public and private sector. Union offi cials could not, in terms of the law at the time, be fulltime at unions’ offices and this made trade unionism part-time. The Minister had a right to sit in trade union meetings or send a representative and even demand the minutes of union meetings. Trade unions could not solicit funds from outside the country. Services could be declared essential services at anytime by a Minister of government, accordingly hampering collective bargaining in those services.

 

Unions and workers associations in the public service and other progressive forces fought hard to improve the unfriendly environment workers in Botswana operated in. The fight for freedom of expression and association of the workers culminated in the revamping of the Trade Disputes Act and the Public Service Act which now, in theory and not in practice, allow unionism in the public service and permit unions to organise lawful industrial action therefore becoming immune from liability. This would be a welcome development, if it was respected by the state in practice, because workers who participate in official industrial action are protected from dismissal by their employer. Following the 2011 two months marathon industrial action by five main public sector unions under the auspices of Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU), the state sought to undermine the right to strike given by the law to the workers. The state dismissed workers, especially those under the category of essential service, e.g. health workers. All workers who went on strike were not paid, some were transferred, others constructively dismissed while others were even demoted or frustrated by the employer. The state outsourced services such as cleaning, laundry, gardening/landscaping etcetera to cripple unions with more industrial class cadre.The state declared war on unions. It withdrew the union’s rights and or privileges which they enjoyed from the state. The state stopped assisting unions with collection of monthly subscriptions from their members at source. A critical resource of any labour movement is monthly payments from its members and the intention of the state was obvious. Government stopped assistance on transport, offi ce space and secondment of union leaders to unions.

 

However, a High Court judgment by Justice Lot Moroka declared the unfair government’s action unlawful and set it aside. Skeptics are already anticipating a defeat of the unions at the Court of Appeal which had in previous two cases brought by BOFEPUSU found that the participation of essential service workers in the 2011 public sector strike was unlawful and that consequently the dismissal of some of them by the government was justified. The state seeks to greatly undermine the right to strike. It has become more vicious. The labour movement should unite, be steadfast and fight the injustice perpetuated by the employer.

 

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