Masisi’s Choppies Conflict

In March 2018, exactly four days before Mokgweetsi Masisi became President, Choppies employees went on strike to demand better living wages. Sixty of these Batswana were summarily dismissed from work. In June 2018, the BDP used its majority in Parliament to defeat a motion to introduce a decent living wage in Botswana. At that time President Masisi’s company that he co-owns with Choppies CEO Ram had already pocketed over P6 million from the Choppies relationship, Staff Writers LAWRENCE SERETSE and KEABETSWE NEWEL report.

By doing business with the controversial Choppies CEO Ramachandran Ottapathu, labour minister and Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Secretary General Mpho Balopi says President Mokgweetsi Masisi is not conflicted at all in matters of employee exploitation.But the Botswana Forum for Action and Reform (B-FAR) counters that Masisi is financially captured and cannot fight against exploitation of Batswana employees by Choppies.

In an interview with The Botswana Gazette, Balopi saysMasisi and the BDP government cannot in any way influence policies for the benefit of businessmen like Ottapathu or block laws which could cost the businessmen some money. This publication specifically asked Balopi whether President Masisi was not conflicted in April 2018 when government took no action against exploitation of workers by Choppies in Botswana, which exposed their earnings of under P1000 monthly despite the sky-high cost of living. The exploitation was exposed in early 2018 at around the time when Masisi took over the presidency. He became president just months after he signed a share certificate in Arcee (Pty) Ltd to become a business partner of the shrewd Indian businessman. President Masisi owns 10 percent of Arcee (Pty) Ltd, which supplies unnamed goods to Choppies, according to the Choppies 2018 annual report.

Just after Masisi became President,Choppies workers leaked their pay slips and exposed their paltry earnings. Interestingly, Choppies at that time had operations in Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Botswana, where Choppies is headquartered, employees remain the lowest paid of all Choppies operations. This is despite the fact that Choppies makes almost all its money here in Botswana. The Botswana Gazette found that across the border, in South Africa, the lowest pay for a Choppies employee was ZAR3200 before Choppies sold its shares in the SA business. The pay was almost six times higher than what their Botswana colleagues earn. In Kenya, before Choppies planned divesting there, there is an agreement signed between Choppies Kenya and the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) in September 2017 which resulted in employees earning the equivalent of more than P3000 as a minimum wage. They had other benefits like commuter allowance (transport) and overtime allowance.

In a live interview then, Choppies CEO Ottapathu said his company paid salaries which are legally within Botswana’s prescribed minimum wage parametres. During that time, Ottapathu said Choppies was ready to pay whatever minimum wage the government set. However, 18 Choppies employees in Botswana who were involved in a strike over exploitative salaries were fired by the President’s business partner in April 2018. Theirs was an appeal to the BDP-led government to intervene. It did not, yet Masisi and the BDP won elections by promising Batswana a dignified life. In an interview, BDP Secretary General Balopi said Masisi’s business dealings with Ottapathu are transparent and do not have any conflict because the businesses are independent legal entities. He repeated what was said by the Press Secretary to the President,Batlhalefi Legajang, who also said like any other citizen, the President was allowed to go into business. Further enquiries to Leagajang by this publication have not been responded to.

Significantly, Balopi is also the Minister of Employment, Labour Productivity and Skills Development. Masisi and Ottapathu’s company benefited over P8 million by supplying unnamed goods to Choppies between 2017 and 2018. By virtue of being in indirect business withChoppies (through Arcee), The Botswana Gazette asked Balopi if the BDP does not see the President conflicted to act against the much publicised exploitation, by publically calling for a review of minimum wage as well as decent pay by Choppies, a company from which his own (Arcee) benefits immensely. While the BDP manifesto advocated for decent living, Masisi never showed support for that position.Balopi says there is a lot to be considered before a minimum wage or decent living wage can be put in place, which is why it is yet to be. He stresses, however, that the BDP has done a lot to bring Botswana to middle income status, a development from which he says Batswana benefit.

Before the 2019 general elections, BDP members of Parliament led a pack that also rejected a motion to introduce a decent living wage. Sponsored by former opposition MP Shaun Nthaile, the motion sought to address the disparity between the minimum wage and the ever rising cost of living. Nthaile argued that a living wage would allow people to lead decent lives as it estimates the cost of living and makes provisions for day to day living. While minimum wages are laid down in law and are enforceable, living wages are not prescribed by law and therefore cannot be legally enforced.The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), though it lost dismally, led its 2019 general elections campaign with a ‘Decent Living, Decent Jobs’ slogan, promising Batswana P3500 as a minimum wage. Batswana rejected the party at the ballot.

While the Botswana Forum for Action and Reform (B-FAR) is shocked Masisi’s, “questionable business partnerships with controversial businessmen like Choppies Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Ramachandran Ottapathu”, Secretary, Tigele Mokobi says it is now evident that President Masisi was conflicted to act against exploitation of his own countrymen so as to protect his commercial interests. Through a paltry pay that exploited workers, Choppies managed to save costs for the benefit of shareholders and business associates.

The President’s alleged business dealings with an evidently questionable businessman, according to Mokobi’s exact words, is the height of betrayal and sound a death knell for the country’s economy and its citizens’ livelihoods. “The President cannot be a player and a referee in the same game. The state regulates the business environment and as head of state, the President oversees organs of accountability that are housed at the Office of the President. The absence of a Declaration of Assets and Liabilities law has the potential to tilt the balance in favour of the President and his business partners, especially in our economy where government procurement accounts for a substantial part of the national economy,”he said, adding thatMasisi leads a political party that promised Batswana improved living standards. “Advance Together Towards A More Inclusive Economy,” the BDP manifesto stated. But barely six months into their tenure, the President displays betrayal of the highest order by engaging in clandestine business deals with people bent on relegating indigenous Batswana to the margins of economic freedom in their own country.
“The allegations have far-reaching implications on the country’s fight against corruption, the image of the country and its delicate economy. President Masisi’s Machiavellian plot with individuals of questionable business ethics lacks the decorum and integrity we associate with his office and imputes deceit and impropriety on his part. It is nothing but a classic case of state capture,” Mokobi said.

According to the 2017/18 minimum wage numbers, government has set a minimum of P3.21 per hour and P5.79 per hour at the highest. The minimum wage guide shows that the domestic service sector is the lowest paying employment sector. Government has set its minimum wage at P3.21 per hour, the equivalent of P25 per day, or P564 every month. Government has set that those employed under retail, distribution and trade, the likes of Choppies and Shoprite, should earn a minimum of P904 (P41 per day) monthly. The highest paying sectors, manufacturing, hotels and construction pay P5.79 per hour, the equivalent of P1000 every month. These are the minimum monthly salaries, which Minister Mabeo says are “working for government”. Interestingly, the paltry paid in Botswana, make up the bulk of Botswana’s employment figures, which means that the majority in Botswana are paid, at most, a minimum wage of P1000 per month.