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Slow progress in Botswana's labour rights

afrol News, 10 June - In spite of proposed new legislation allowing public servants to unionise, several restrictions still remained in Batswana labour rights. Progress in reaching international standards is moving slowly in one of Africa's richest countries.

Three labour bills - the Employment (Amendment) Bill, the Trade Unions and Employers Organisations (Amendment) Bill, and the Trade Disputes Bill - aimed at bringing Botswana's laws in line with international conventions are to be discussed in parliament in 2003.

One of them allows public servants to unionise for the first time, with the exception of the Botswana Defence Force, the Botswana Police, the Local Police and the Prisons Service. This development is hailed in the annual survey of violations of trade union rights, released today by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

- For the first time workers in this country will speak with one single and unified voice, said Ronald Baipidi, president of the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU). "Both the private sector and government will now take unions more seriously because of the muscle we shall have at our disposal," he added.

However one section of the Trade Disputes Bill still empowers the Minister of Labour to determine the conditions for union membership, the ICFTU report says.

The Employment (Amendment) Bill protects employees if their employer becomes insolvent, by means of a privilege on that employer's assets. It also establishes a Labour Advisory Board.

The Trade Unions and Employers Organisations (Amendment) Bill removes the condition requiring more than 30 employees to form a trade union. The Registrar's power to de-register a trade union or federation if one of their officers is a non-citizen will also be abolished.

Other gains include that those who leave their jobs will be able to keep their trade union membership even if they have worked in another industry. The restrictions placed on those who want to be members are to be removed.

The Minister of Labour's power to investigate trade union membership thus also will be removed and unions will no longer need the Minister's approval to affiliate to international trade unions. In addition, trade unions were to be legally entitled to receive funds from outside the country without the Minister's approval. Finally, elected officials were to be allowed to be in the trade union on a full time basis.

The new Trade Disputes Bill creates a panel of full time and part time mediators and arbitrators, chaired by the Commissioner of Labour. The Panel must mediate on trade disputes which are referred to it by the Labour Department within 30 days.

- The right to strike is recognised, ICFTU acknowledges in it Botswana report, "but workers must first submit their demands to complex arbitration procedures."

Strikes were however not allowed in essential services, the list of which exceeds the definition given by international conventions. For example, the Bank of Botswana is included.

The same labour laws apply to Botswana's export processing zone as to the rest of the country, making Botswana a rare exception in the region.

In practical terms, however, many labour rights given by the law were restricted, the report highlights. There is very little collective bargaining, although this is granted by the law. The reason was mostly that few trade unions meet the criteria of organising 25 percent of the work force.

The government had further "used its strike legislation to order workers back to work," ICFTU noted, as in the case of employees of the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board, who went on strike in 2000 because they had not received their salary adjustments. During 2002, there had been no legal strikes in Botswana.

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