The mass public sector strike in Botswana, southern Africa, escalated on Tuesday when the government sacked health workers in 'essential' services.
Some 90,000 public sector workers have struck for over a month demanding a 16 percent wage increase. The government has fired workers who defied a court order to return to work.
It has not said how many people this applies to, but they include doctors, nurses, pharmacists and cleaners employed in public hospitals.
When the strike started the BOFEPUSU union federation had agreed to keep a skeleton staff working to maintain essential services. However, the government took the unions to court saying that all workers in 'essential' jobs had to return to their posts.
And the government's definition of essential services even included gardeners.
The court ruled against the unions. The federation appealed—and instructed its members to stay out in the meantime. The appeal court gave its judgement last week, also in support of the government—but workers refused to return to work.
Union spokesperson Goretse Kekgonegile said, 'We take this as intimidation by government and don't take the announcement seriously. However, if the government is serious we will protect our members.'
But following the sackings, the workers who had been maintaining skeleton cover walked out too.
Odirile Bakae, a doctor at Princess Marina Hospital, in the capital, Gaborone, told the AFP news agency, 'Since the government has decided to fire our colleagues, we have also decided to join the strike and mobilise other health personnel to do the same so that hospitals are left with no doctor or nurse.'
The International Socialists Botswana say, 'The strike is at a turning point. The public certainly supports the strike, tribal leaders who were instructed not to hear complaints of workers at their customary assemblies defied instructions and listened to the workers. However, state power makes solidarity action difficult.'
Officially all rallies and demonstrations are banned. More than 50 students were arrested during a riot by young people demanding that the government settle the dispute so that they could return to school.
Up to 3,000 secondary school students battled with the police in Molepolole, a small town 30 miles from Gaborone, under teargas and rubber bullets. Some students were injured, but, according to a local radio station, police had to flee from the angry students.
'We are here in the strike to help the teachers, because we want to be educated,' explained one student.
As the strike continues all the country's primary and secondary schools are now closed.
Last week union negotiators offered to settle for a 12 percent wage increase, the reinstatement of all sacked workers and the reversal of a 'no work, no pay' condition. But talks broke down on Thursday, and the government's escalation doesn't suggest they are ready to compromise.
Send solidarity messages to the president of BOFEPUSU, Masego Mogwera: [email protected]