The Covid-19 pandemic continues to bear its ugly head. For those in the informal economy, the effects have been devastating as the economy sheds jobs on a daily. In Botswana, our economy has been predicted to shrink when compared to other years. In these trying times one would hope that there is a unity of purpose to preserve jobs and to ensure that those on the fringes of the economy are not exploited.
The most precarious workers in Botswana, among them Security Guards and shop assistants, are not organised as a labour collective. Union bursting tactics by those in the private sector has made organising this section of the workers extremely difficult. This article however does not seek to explore the difficulties in organising the informal sector but express a deep-seated disappointment with my alma mater in the University of Botswana.
In the week beginning 6 July 2020, the University of Botswana flighted several advertisements on local newspapers that condemned industrial action by several employees employed by its sub-contractors. For years, it has been known that many of the several service providers employed by the University of Botswana have been exploiting their employees. These acts of exploitation, to put it lightly, have at times bordered on criminality within our legislative framework. I believe that these concerns are not news to the management of the University. One would have hoped that the University, out of moral obligation, would have stood with the workers.
The University of Botswana, as the country’s premier tertiary institution and based on its history, has a special role in moulding the moral fabric of the country. Its recent tone deafness was not misguided but a betrayal of the principles upon which it was founded. The University of Botswana was not founded to be a capitalist demagogue but was found on a simple but powerful principle of community. It was to serve as a mould for a country we could all be proud of. Part of the responsibility of the University is to stand against acts of injustice especially when they happen on its soil.
By allowing companies that not only exploit fellow citizens but flout the law to continue to render service to it, the University of Botswana tarnished its own image. These group of employees, being extremely vulnerable, were appealing to the conscience of the University management. Instead of being met with a warm embrace, they were met with a rather cold, heartless rebuke. I believe the employees who work for entities under the employ of the University were making their appeal with the hope that the University management would use its power to intervene on their behalf, and like waste water they were thrown to the curb. A travesty.
What can the University of Botswana do? Well, to start with the University of Botswana management owes and should offer and unreserved apology to all the workers they threw under the bus. That is a moral obligation they owe the country. As an Alumnus of the University of Botswana I expect as much and hope that the rest of the Alumni community feel the same. Secondly, the university should, along with now accepted best practice, insert peremptory labour friendly clauses that protect employees of its sub-contractors from exploitation. Unpaid salaries should, among others, amount to a material breach of contract. Further to that, the University management should ensure that such clauses are enforced.
In closing, I would like to call upon the organised labour movements to come to the aid of the informal workers. In times like these, we need to hear their voices more than ever. There is an urgent need to assist in organising this section of the labour force.