The above is the Theme of the Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) Executive Committee 2019 Conference scheduled to be held at the Majestic Five Hotel in Palapye from 2 December 2019. I humbly ask BOPEU to forgive me for being an uninvited guest to discussing their Theme. That said, I find the Theme interesting and appropriate because it also talks to members of the society over and above the conference delegates who are largely BOPEU members. I also accept that my interpretation of the Theme may not be in line with BOPEU’s in whatever respects. I therefore feel I am not offending BOPEU and whoever is officially associated with the Theme. If I do, my sincerest apologies.
For time immemorial and generally speaking, the relationship between business/unions on one hand and government on the other has rendered industrial harmony in some instances to be on the cliff on account that government in most instances, displays a big brother mentality to the detriment of the other tripartite partners. That it is global phenomena I want to believe and it shouldn’t be an excuse for this country not to put in some effort to honestly and genuinely resolve it given the dire consequences that follow for failure to do so.
While government argues that it is equal to the other tripartite partners, the fact of the matter is that in reality, this is not the case. The big brother mentality is displayed like it does with respect to the three arms of government. In this instance, the executive is always seen as an arm that bulldozes the other arms because it holds the levers of power that can make or break the desired functioning of the other arms. History indicates that the other arms are at the mercy of the executive in more ways than one. Likewise and as a consequences of this behaviour, industrial harmony at the workplace and the greater society becomes the casualty. In order to do justice to the Theme, it is imperative in my view that a proper definition is given to the key words-Synergizing and Industrial Harmony.
Synergizing is described by the dictionary as to ‘combine or coordinate the activity of (two or more agents) to produce a joint effect greater than the sum of their separate effects’ or, ‘interact or cooperate with one or more agents to produce a joint effect greater than the sum of effects achieved separately’. It tells us from these definitions that the Theme demands that the tripartite is duty bound to cooperate in order to achieve the expected desires dictated by each other’s mandate.
In a paper authored by a few individuals and titled ‘Maintaining Industrial Harmony Through Employee’s Engagement…. Volume II, Issue VII of 2015, the paper defines Industrial Harmony as “The state of relative peace in the organisation which generally involves; absence of strike, lack of trust among the work group or union, peaceful relationship between unions and management of the organisation, positive involvement or participation of the employees”. The paper goes further to observe that “The mutual trust and cooperation between employees and management is the core to industrial peace. When the trust exists, all the problems are mutually explorable and the solutions become visible…” In essence, the Theme is saying government through its expected political commitment should ensure that all obstacles in terms of unfriendly laws and policies are removed to ensure that trade unions operate under the ratified and other ILO Conventions. In the same vein, relevant laws and policies should be in place to create conducive business activity whose outcomes are principally job creation. The end result of all these is industrial harmony and the improved socio-economic circumstances of society.
Synergizing the Socio-Economic Desires of the Tripartite
Different partners in the tripartite arrangement have different desires though the ultimate goal is to greatly improve the socio-economic and political circumstances of citizens be they workers in the mainstream labour relations context or businesses in terms of job creation and profiteering from their activities. Trade unions like BOPEU are primarily charged with the mandate of ensuring that conducive conditions of service accrue to their members at the workplace in order to improve their socio-economic circumstances and greater productivity for the good of their compatriots. This is the sticking point where trade unions and the employer in this instance government have found it difficult to find convergence the result of which is strained industrial relations. The 2011 public sector strike is the case in point. Government has in large measure failed to practically adhere to ILO Conventions particularly those it has ratified. And this principally because of the big brother mentality alluded to above coupled with a greater sense of vindictiveness. The issue of defining essential services outside the definition of ILO Convention for example comes to mind. While government seems to have had a change of heart in this respect, a complete adherence to other ratified ILO Conventions remains a serious challenge albeit self-created.
Trade unions generally speaking, have also dismally failed to push government to adhere to these Conventions by using the power of strike because they have their own internal squabbles particularly at leadership levels. Trade union federations still find it extremely difficult to collaborate in common matters that affect them all like pushing government for violating ILO Conventions like organising protest marches. Lodging complaints at the ILO hasn’t pushed government enough to comply. It is in the public domain that BOPEU has in the recent past spent much of its energy and financial resources in litigation not against the employer but against itself which inevitably and in large measure, distracts it from its core business. As a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the socio-economic desires.
Trade union leaders have to look themselves in the mirror to say: are we still pushing our members’ agenda enough to achieve our desires or are we using our positions to further our own personal interests. The latter appears to be the case. I have not heard such leaders condemning the issue of public servants forming companies in order to do business with government in whatever form or shape (I am writing under correction). Failure to do so may be due to the possibility that the very leaders benefit from the same dispensation, directly or indirectly. Just like politicians seek political office to be at the right place at the right time to reap whatever personal benefit, trade union leadership office confers similar personal benefits. There is a serious perception that in some cases, trade union leaders are in cahoots with political leadership to betray the struggles of their own members for self-preservation. Is the current crop of trade union leadership across the board still serving the interests of their members? Unfolding events in the trade union movement I am afraid, do not suggest it.
Business is an important partner in the tripartite configuration whose importance is to create jobs if one follows the argument by government that her job is to create a conducive environment for business to create such jobs. Is that conducive environment truly in place or is it only hot political air? The latter appears to be the case. It is true that government holds almost all the tools in terms of public funds, laws and policies to make it easy or difficult for business to thrive. But business through Business Botswana has complained overtime that government in fact, continues to make doing business in Botswana a nightmare through a plethora of complaints raised at the High Level Consultative Council and other fora. These complaints are public knowledge and I need not repeat them. But one concern Business Botswana has raised sharply and correctly so is the question of public servants doing business with government. The argument against this dispensation is that of conflict of interest where the civil servant is more likely to give more attention to his/her business interests than his/her day to day job and the high possibility of corrupt conduct by the said officers given that internal controls to deal with such conduct are as good as not there. It follows therefore that for as long as there are these and other impediments to doing business, it becomes difficult if not impossible to achieve synergizing the socio-economic desires. Is business and trade unions willing to engage on the issue of public servants doing business with government? They have to but given vested interests therein from public servants, it looks highly unlikely.
It is important to mention that corruption is a multi-faceted activity that runs across the tripartite with obvious devastating effect on the constituencies the tripartite serves. While corruption could arguably be said not to be severe in the trade unions, the same cannot be said about it between government and business (the private sector). And this because government dispenses a lot of financial resources in tenders which tenders are implemented by businesses. At the end of the day, tendered projects are not completed on time and within budgets; no one is ever held accountable like in the Palapye Glass factory failure and, dispensed financial resources are ever recovered and so on. The big brother (government) who holds all the levers of power to ensure that stringent policies and laws are in place to curb the corruption conduct, has been found wanting. Even if she comes with laws, such are riddled with too many gaps rendering them to be largely ineffective in the bigger scheme of things like the Assets and Liabilities Law recently passed by parliament. In the end and with this in mind, synergizing the socio-economic desires becomes a tall order.
Synergizing the socio-economic and political desires of the tripartite desires largely resides in government for obvious reasons. So if government grows cold feet in coming up with proactive policies and laws necessary to create conducive environment for other partners like trade unions and business to be of benefit to the greater society, industrial harmony will continue to be a rare species. Government is faced with a serious hurdle of addressing and decisively dealing with corruption amongst others. But because politicians benefit handsomely from insider information; kick-backs from businesses; fraudulent tenders specifically tailored to suit other businesses, it becomes a nightmare for socio-economic desires to accrue to workers. Government must come to the party by not only pronouncing rhetorical political commitment but by also ensuring that such commitment is genuinely implemented. Lack of serious and honest political commitment is at the centre of what government seeks to do for citizens. It is high time that trade unions and business put pressure on government to deliver on political commitment.
In conclusion, the tripartite alliance must move away from talk shop mentality to the implementation of its resolutions. BOPEU must be congratulated for this Theme and how I wish I was that fly on the wall to witness the deliberations. For industrial harmony to prevail, synergy with respect to the socio-economic and political desires of the tripartite is no longer an option if ever it was, but a must. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise. Judge for Yourself!