TROUBLE IN PARADISE?

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  •  Staff  allege abuse at Chobe Game Lodge.
  • Manager says it’s a waste of money to buy staff  winter jerseys
  • Office of the President declines to intervene
  • They want to tarnish our good reputation- says Lodge Director

SONNY SERITE

The Botswana Gazette has uncovered documents detailing allegations of ill-treatment of staff through stringent policies that erode their basic dignity by their managers at Chobe Game Lodge, the only 5 star tourism outlet located inside the world-renowned Chobe National Park.

In legal proceedings, filed at Francistown Industrial Court, 13 members of staff are seeking legal redress against Chobe Game Lodge for its labour practices. The complaints made at the Industrial Court have also been lodged with the Office of the President (OP).

The Office of the President, in response to the staff’s complaint dated 22 October, 2018 signed by Gaolebogwe Stephen Ngidi on behalf of Permanent Secretary to the President declined to be drawn into the fray, noting that the complaints were being addressed in court proceedings and that it could not therefore intervene.

Chobe Game Lodge employs 155 people and across almost all the departments (front office, guides, maintenance, housekeeping, food and beverage) employees have raised grievances on their working conditions.

Of the 155 members of staff at the lodge only 13 have taken their complaint to the Industrial Court. The 13 aggrieved staff wrote to the lodge’s parent company, revealing how employees have in the past pleaded with its directors to address their concerns, to no avail as they were allegedly informed by the General Manager Johan Bruwer that, ‘‘if you ladies can’t work under my conditions then pack and go because I did not call you from the streets to come and work for my company’’.

Among the litany of complaints, the employees allege that the lodge does not provide them with warm uniform (jerseys) during winter despite insisting that members of staff wear uniforms. Interviewed by The Botswana Gazette, staff members claim that they would have wanted to join the legal proceedings but fear that their employment will be terminated as previously threatened.

Staff who have approached the Industrial Court indicate that  the spate of the alleged abuse has increased due to the pending litigation, “We hereby seek your intervention on our working environment, conditions and treatment we get from the non-citizen management. We have been oppressed for many years by Johan Bruwer (General Manager) and it has gotten worse with the arrival of Johan Krige (Assistant General Manager). People are fired for every little thing, gone are the days we woke up in the morning knowing we had a job,” the employees alleged.

Bruwer and Krige have denied the allegations levelled against them. In his email response to our questionnaire, Bruwer said his company has a ‘‘well documented Grievance Procedure; upon induction all new employees are given a copy,” whilst adding that both his and Gibson’s offices are always open to employees to approach.

Chobe Game Lodge has informed this publication that they are subjected to regular labour inspections, conducted by the Department of Labour, with the most recent being on the 4th June, 2018. However, employees note that their complaints of dehumanising treatment were not addressed by the District Labour Office.

The employees claim that labour officials are ‘captured’ in favour of the lodge as their labour disputes go unreported and remain unresolved.

‘‘The vast majority of issues raised by yourself have not been brought to our attention, neither through the Grievances Procedure mechanism or through the District Labour Office,” Bruwer wrote in his response to this publication, without stating which of the grievances have actually reached his desk.

Bruwer highlighted that his company is dedicated to                   ensuring the best living and economic conditions of all its 155 employees, ‘‘from a minimum wage of more than double the government prescribed, feeding, transport, medical support, adaptive labour practices, a basket of discretionary performance based bonuses on monthly and annual bases.’’

In contrast to the open policy asserted by management, staff allege that they are intimated and threatened whenever they approach Human Resource Office to raise their complaints, ‘‘There is a camera right at the door of HR office that they use to see who went in and for how long’’, the employees explained.

The allegations of staff intimidation are however refuted by management as being merely a part of the company’s “policy and style.” “Most, but not all employees have accepted the challenges that come with their work and now have a skill set of value far above those they arrived with when they joined Chobe Game Lodge. We believe these allegations to be malicious and without substance, and out of context designed to damage the reputation and good standing of Chobe Game Lodge,” Bruwer claimed.

This publication has also learnt that the tour guides are neither allowed to eat the same food nor eat at the same table with tourists during guided tours. While out in the bush hosting tourists on game drives and boat cruises, guides are expected to set up meals for the tourists and allegedly not eat with them. Instead, the guides are prepared their separate food packed in brown paper bags as they are not allowed to use disposable plates from the lodge. Guides inform the Botswana Gazette that tours may take an entire day and that they are fed two sandwiches for breakfast.

‘‘We find it very hard to explain to the tourists when they ask why we are not eating the same food with them because telling them it is the company policy might put us in trouble because they will definitely approach management and express their disgust at the arrangement,” a guide who spoke to this publication during its investigations, alleged.

Chobe Game Lodge is the only tourist enterprise in the country if not the world, that boasts of only female guides, all 23 of them. Since 2005 Chobe Game Lodge has been training women to join the tour guide fraternity and today has a full complement of professionally trained female guides.

The filing of their complaint to the district labour office has proven to be a difficult terrain for staff to traverse.

In retaliation to staff taking the lodge to task the General Manager is alleged to have told the guides, in front of officers from the Department of Labour that, “I am going to make things difficult for them, so they don’t have any tips.’’ Reached for comment the Department of Labour declined to comment on the incident on record.

As a way to deprive employees of earning tips from tourists, the guides allege that  they are no longer assigned to the same group of tourists for the duration of their visit and instead, tourists are given alternating guides. Prior to this new arrangement, a guide would be in charge of the same group of tourists during their entire stay and would build a rapport with them.

The new arrangement has however disadvantaged tourists and guests, as revealed in a “Notice” to the guides dated 23, July 2018 where management wrote that ‘‘some guests complain that guides gave the same information at the same destinations on game drives and boats. As we no longer ascribe one guide to one group of guests but have several guides for the same group you need to communicate with one another’’.

In spite of the unequal footing between employer and employee the 13 staff have persisted with their claims and in court related documents claim that over and above their day to day mistreatment they have faced financial hardships too, as they are surcharged for incidents that are beyond their control.

‘‘You break a boat propeller you are made to pay, as if we can see what is inside the water that can cause damage.” Staff are also allegedly made to pay for tyre punctures and if they misplace the boat keys, they are made to pay for the replacement of the entire ignition system.

The guides alleged that despite their risky job, they do not get risk allowance and they are not paid overtime. ‘‘The management insists that we should work six days and take one day off as the labour laws state but here as guides we work more than the eight hours prescribed in the labour laws’’, they alleged.

The all-female guides complained in the leaked correspondence to management, that when they fall pregnant, they are forced to go on early maternity leave. ‘‘We go on unpaid leave way before our due date as they take pregnancy as being unfit for duty,” they confirmed to this publication.

Medical privacy has taken centre stage as part of the Staff’s complaint as they allege that the head guide insists on reading their medical cards whenever they report in sick, despite medical leave forms being given to their employers. In one of the many letters between staff and management, the employees allege that ‘‘when we get sick at work or at night, we are not taken to hospital, but we are told to call MRI, which charges USD500 (P5000) and our salaries are as little as P2300.”

Chobe Game Lodge General Manager Johan Bruwer addressed some of the grievances raised by staff. In a letter to the House Keeping department, dated July 9th, 2018 Bruwer informs the department that it is costly and pointless to buy jerseys for employees during winter. ‘‘The jerseys for staff have (sic) been a contentious issue for years and a costly exercise annually. We have a very short winter with about 7-9 weeks of chilly mornings’’, Bruwer wrote. Bruwer justified denying staff warm clothing by claiming that instead of buying them jerseys, he would rather strive to have their minimum wage reach P3 000 in the near future. ‘‘The idea is to get the staff to rather apply the better salaries to warmer clothing they can wear under their uniforms in winter.”

When responding to their queries of being fed only two slices of bread for breakfast, Bruwer promised to look into the matter but insisted that the employees were getting good food. “It just breaks my heart to see how much food gets put in the dustbins from staff plates-totally unnecessary,’’ Bruwer said in response to the Gazette.

Established in 1972, the billion pula tourism outlet, Chobe Game Lodge, became famous when, in 1975,  celebrity guests Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tie the knot at establishment  which catapulted the lodge into the international limelight.