BOTSWANA: Public sector strike hurts poor

Photo: WHO/Paul Garwood
Striking essential workers, including health workers, have been fired
GABORONE, 25 May 2011 (IRIN) - Patients and schoolchildren are emerging as the biggest losers from a strike by public service workers in Botswana which is entering its sixth week.

Close to a 100,000 public servants, including about 1,500 considered essential workers, are staying away from their posts while government and unions tussle over salaries.

Medical practitioners have disregarded warnings by the Botswana Health Professions Council to go back to work or risk being deregistered - with the result that major health centres like the Nyangabgwe Referral Hospital in Francistown and Princess Marina Hospital in the capital, Gaborone, are barely functioning, and smaller clinics have closed completely.

Maria Bogadi, 24, is expecting her second child any day and is unsure where to go when her labour pains begin.

“What will I do if there is no one to attend to me at the hospital?" she said. "I cannot afford to go to a private clinic, they are very expensive."

Bogadi and her husband usually survive on the small income they receive doing casual labour at public facilities through a government initiative called `Ipelegeng’ which provides limited employment to some 50,000 beneficiaries. While Bogadi's husband continues to do work through the programme, he has not been paid since the strike began.

Winfred Rasina, an activist from the opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy, told IRIN the poor and the marginalized had been hardest hit by the disruption of public services.

"The projects meant for the poor such as `Ipelegeng’ are at a standstill because staff... are on strike,” she told IRIN.

Rasina added that the rich and middle classes were less affected because they were not dependent on government handouts and mostly used private schools and doctors.

When the strike action started on 18 April, it was meant to last only 10 days, but the government said it could not afford unions' demands for a 16 percent wage increase and offered 5 percent. That figure has now been revised to 3 percent.

In a public address, President Ian Khama slammed union leaders for failing to appreciate that the country was recovering from a recession which had left the government with a significant deficit.

“You cannot give what you don't have, that is a fact," said Khama. “We should all be in this together and I have no intention of drawing out this painful recession any longer than it has to be. So I am afraid we have stood our ground and we will continue to stand our ground.”

Schools shut

The minister of education closed all public, primary and secondary schools indefinitely on 16 May following violent clashes between the police and students who were protesting about the absence of teachers in classrooms.

Later that day, the government announced that it had fired all essential workers who had refused to return to work in contempt of a court order that barred them from striking, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists already in short supply at public hospitals.

The Botswana Centre for Human Rights (Ditshwanelo) released a statement noting that the stalemate between government officials and union leaders had already led to the loss of lives due to the absence of adequate medical staff at health facilities.

Delays in the supply of medication and problems with waste collection caused by the strike have also had an impact on public health.

The Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM) said the protracted strike had also had a negative impact on the economy, causing serious cash flow problems for many companies that relied on government orders for goods and services.

“Businesses in all categories and sectors have experienced, in general, a slow growth period,” said the Confederation in a statement.

“We’ve had some instances where BOCCIM business members indicated that they may close shop within a month if the situation does not subside.”


Theme (s): Children, Economy, Education, Governance, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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