The Court of Appeal (CoA) has this week laid the blame on government and Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Sectors Union (BOFEPUSU) for the eventual collapse of the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC).
Both BOFEPUSU and government withdrew from the PSBC following disagreements and countless court battles between the duo, rendering the Council eventually ineffective and worthless. In the just ended matter, government in cohorts with Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) was appealing a case in which Gaborone High Court Judge Tshepo Motswagole earlier this year ruled in favour of BOFEPUSU in a matter to set the record straight on the scope of the Bargaining Council.
In essence, the judgement of Justice Motswagole nullified the unilateral decision by Government to award salary increments outside the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) saying government had bargained in bad faith with the unions.
“Government breached its duty to bargain in good faith when it granted unilateral 3% increment of salaries on March 30, 2016. The scope of the PSBC- being a joint industrial council – extends to all public servants and is not only restricted to trade union members,” Motswagole had ruled then. At the time, BOPEU was not sitting in the PSBC and it is understood that motivated its teaming up with government against rival union, BOFEPUSU.
The two critical questions in the appeal were both answered this week in the judgement as delivered by a bench consisting of CoA President Justice Ian Stuart Kirby, Justice Monametsi Gaongalelwe and Justice Zibani Makhwade. The trio, through Justice Gaongalelwe who read the judgement on their behalf, reached a conclusion that “the government is not permitted to grant unilateral wage increases to public servants during the period when wage negotiations are in progress as this constitutes negotiating in bad faith.”
In regard to the principle of negotiations in labour matters having to be conducted in good faith by both the employer party and the trade union party, Judge Gaongalelwe also said that it was impermissible, and an act of bad faith for government to grant a unilateral increase to public servants during the period set aside each year for wage negotiations. This, he said, could be construed as being intended to frustrate ongoing negotiations.
However, the trio also ruled, which seems to be contradictory, that; “decisions of the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) do not presently bind public service employees who are not unionised nor those who are members of trade unions not admitted to the council.”
The highest court explained that on the strength of all materials canvassed, they found that decisions of the PSBC, as presently provided for only bound parties to the Council. In practical terms they highlighted that this translated to saying that decisions of the Council governed only those public employees who are members of trade unions admitted to the Council.
Justice Gaongalelwe explained that “so while it is mandated with dealing with cross-cutting issues common to all public servants, the PSBC decision will, by article 28 bind only the members of its constituent unions.” He also said that all indications suggest that government acted in bath faith when negotiating with unions. “In casu the actions of government as a party to the PSBC fall squarely within what amounts to bad faith. Government was unwilling to enter into discussions as evidenced by ignoring the letter from BOFEPUSU and refused any counter proposal.”
“Granting the unilateral increment in the manner in which it was done seriously undermined the trade unions and dented their integrity and credibility in that it intended to show employees that union representatives are not effective in bargaining and such conduct dissuades employees from joining trade unions,” Justice Gaongalelwe pointed out in the judgement.
He added that, “In my judgement, even if such increment had been offered during the negotiating period to public officers whose trade unions were not members of the Council and to non-unionized employees only (which was not the case) that would still be amounted to bad faith since at the end of the day such adjusted salaries would be withheld from officers whose trade unions are parties to the Council, and government would not achieve its objective of making adjustments for purposes of achieving uniformity in salaries of employees holding similar and same scale positions. The granting of such an increment would have an obvious damaging effect on the status of the PSBC merger unions.”
According to Gaongalelwe, the judgement will probably mark a completion of what had been a long and tortuous journey over a rough terrain undertaken by government and prominent trade unions. “The journey commenced through launching an application for an interdict at the Industrial Court, then a review application at the High Court and ultimately the matter came to this court, he said.
“The controversy in this appeal largely revolves around the interpretation of certain provisions found in statutes and instruments dealing with labour relations in the country. These are the Public Service Act, Trade Unions and Employers’ Organisations Act, Trade Disputes Act and the constitution of Public Service Bargaining Council,” he added.
Collapse of the Bargaining Council is a step in retrogression
According to Gaongalelwe, the effect of the withdrawal of all trade union parties from the PSBC and that there was no Bargaining Council presently is a step in retrogression. “it creates an unhealthy situation which will be counterproductive in the end, with uncoordinated parallel negotiations being held with sundry unions,” the CoA judgement pointed out. Justice Gaongalelwe said trade unions have been created for the purpose of constructive collective bargaining and their forming a bargaining council was a valuable move for the benefit of members.
He stressed that: “I must say this latest development causes a concern. An operative PSBC gives government the opportunity to benefit from properly researched submissions advanced by the unions, who are well resourced for this purpose, and to receive feedback on its own proposals developed during the budgetary process, so that an acceptable and affordable compromise can hopefully be attained each year. This is a positive process for the benefit of the nation, and should not be viewed in a negative light.”
The Judge emphasised that since parties had withdrawn from the PSBC, which has been rendered dysfunctional “shows an urgent need of the government and the unions to revisit either the Act or the PSBC constitution or both, so that a fair and inclusive negotiating forum can be reconstituted”.
Parliament should amend law to remove obstacles for unions admission to PSBC
The way forward, Judge Gaongalelwe pointed out, might be for parliament to consider amending the relevant statutes, if so advised by the appropriate authorities, to set by law the annual negotiating period, and to remove some of the obstacles to admission to the council.
He said “the thresholds in respect of both recognition of a trade union by the employer and for the admission to the PSBC are too high, and make fully inclusive PSBC impossible,” before adding that “It is difficult and often unachievable for a single trade union to be admitted to the Council. This inevitably leads to the trade union desirous of becoming party to the council being compelled to enter into acting jointly agreements which have their own problems.”
He added that it can also lead to one sector of the public service being over-represented in the Council at the expense of other sectors, and that seems to have happened at one stage in this case. He justified highlighted that the withdrawal of BOPEU from the BOFEPUSU acting jointly agreement created just such a scenario.
However, to avoid being seen to be encroaching to parliament territory, Justice Gaongalelwe highlighted that it is worth noting that the remarks were only suggested possibilities, “since the courts has no legislative powers and that it was parliament which legislated where its wisdom so directs”. BOFEPUSU was represented by Advocate Alec Freund, Mboki Chilisa and Onuorah Ifezue while BOPEU was represented by Dutch Leburu. Odirile Otto, Advocate Tim Bruinders and Joseph Akoonyatse stood in for government.
Government is currently sitting on 4 400 vacant posts that remain unfilled in the civil service. This is notwithstanding the high unemployment rate in Botswana which has been exacerbated by the recent outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Just before the burst of COVID-19, official data released by Statistics Botswana in January 2020, indicate that unemployment in Botswana has increased from 17.6 percent three years ago to 20.7 percent. “Unemployment rate went up by 3.1 percentage between the two periods, from 17.6 to 20.7 percent,” statistics point out.
Leading commercial bank, First National Bank Botswana (FNBB), expects the central bank to sharpen its monetary policy knife and cut the Bank Rate twice in the last quarter of 2020.
The bank expects a 25 basis point (bps) in the beginning of the last quarter, which is next month, and another shed by the same bps in December, making a total of 50 bps cut in the last quarter. According to the bank’s researchers, the central bank is now holding on to 4.25 percent for the time being pending for more informed data on the economic climate.
An audit of the accounts and records for the supply of food rations to the institutions in the Northern Region for the financial year-ended 31 March 2019 was carried out. According to Auditor General’s report and observations, there are weaknesses and shortcomings that were somehow addressed to the Accounting Officer for comments.
Auditor General, Pulane Letebele indicated on the report that, across all depots in the region that there had been instances where food items were short for periods ranging from 1 to 7 months in the institutions for a variety of reasons, including absence of regular contracts and supplier failures. The success of this programme is dependent on regular and reliable availability of the supplies to achieve its objective, the report said.
There would be instances where food items were returned from the feeding centers to the depots for reasons of spoilage or any other cause. In these cases, instances had been noted where these returns were not supported by any documentation, which could lead to these items being lost without trace.
The report further stressed that large quantities of various food items valued at over P772 thousand from different depots were damaged by rodents, and written off.Included in the write off were 13 538 (340ml) cartons of milk valued at P75 745. In this connection, the Auditor General says it is important that the warehouses be maintained to a standard where they would not be infested by rodents and other pests.
Still in the Northern region, the report noted that there is an outstanding matter relating to the supply of stewed steak (283×3.1kg cans) to the Maun depot which was allegedly defective. The steak had been supplied by Botswana Meat Commission to the depot in November 2016.
In March 2017 part of the consignment was reported to the supplier as defective, and was to be replaced. Even as there was no agreement reached between the parties regarding replacement, in 51 October 2018 the items in question were disposed of by destruction. This disposal represented a loss as the whole consignment had been paid for, according to the report.
“In my view, the loss resulted directly from failure by the depot managers to deal with the matter immediately upon receipt of the consignment and detection of the defects. Audit inspections during visits to Selibe Phikwe, Maun, Shakawe, Ghanzi and Francistown depots had raised a number of observations on points of detail related to the maintenance of records, reconciliations of stocks and related matters, which I drew to the attention of the Accounting Officer for comments,” Letebele said in her report.
In the Southern region, a scrutiny of the records for the control of stocks of food items in the Southern Region had indicated intermittent shortages of the various items, principally Tsabana, Malutu, Sunflower Oil and Milk which was mainly due to absence of subsisting contracts for the supply of these items.
“The contract for the supply of Tsabana to all depots expired in September 2018 and was not replaced by a substantive contract. The supplier contracts for these stocks should be so managed that the expiry of one contract is immediately followed by the commencement of the next.”
Suppliers who had been contracted to supply foodstuffs had failed to do so and no timely action had been taken to redress the situation to ensure continuity of supply of the food items, the report noted.
In one case, the report highlighted that the supplier was to manufacture and supply 1 136 metric tonnes of Malutu for a 4-months period from March 2019 to June 2019, but had been unable to honour the obligation. The situation was relieved by inter-depot transfers, at additional cost in transportation and subsistence expenses.
In another case, the contract was for the supply of Sunflower Oil to Mabutsane, where the supplier had also failed to deliver. Examination of the Molepolole depot Food Issues Register had indicated a number of instances where food items consigned to the various feeding centres had been returned for a variety of reasons, including food item available; no storage space; and in other cases the whole consignments were returned, and reasons not stated.
This is an indication of lack of proper management and monitoring of the affairs of the depot, which could result in losses from frequent movements of the food items concerned.The maintenance of accounting records in the region, typically in Letlhakeng, Tsabong, and Mabutsane was less than satisfactory, according to Auditor General’s report.
In these depots a number of instances had been noted where receipts and issues had not been recorded over long periods, resulting in incorrect balances reflected in the accounting records. This is a serious weakness which could lead to or result in losses without trace or detection, and is a contravention of Supplies Regulations and Procedures, Letebele said.
Similarly, consignments of a total of 892 bags of Malutu and 3 bags of beans from Tsabong depot to different feeding centres had not been received in those centres, and are considered lost. These are also not reflected in the Statement of Losses in the Annual Statements of Accounts for the same periods.