The corporate world is normally marred with exploitation, oppression and greed, which always end up affecting the welfare of employees, their families, their economic stature and eventually the political and economic welfare of the nation.
In many nations, we all know that it is the corporate companies which influence the stock exchange, employment levels, the financial status of the people, government initiatives, politics and economic health. Normally these corporations are the ones which endure the political turmoil in a country for longer periods, more so than private companies due to the magnitude of investment and their being part of an international group that is stretched throughout the world.
Many times this gives the corporations a huge influence on a nation’s economy as they service essential areas in most of them. Due to their international footprint and influence, as well as the local market footprints that they have established for themselves, their sneeze cannot go unrecognised. But somehow they always manage to hide it and continue as though nothing has happened.
One such corporation is CA Sales and Distribution which started decades ago as a shelf company in the 1990s and establishing itself over the years in the supply chain industry. However, CA Sales glory days were in the first decade of this century when it was owned by Mr Ian Thompson and Mr Jagdish Shah. These were the years that CA Sales established itself as a private company, taking over Dafin Sales and Kalahari Sales to make it the most formidable sales and distribution company despite the setback which saw their warehouse burnt to the ground in 2006. CA Sales managed to rise from those ashes without dismissing a single employee to eventually build the biggest warehousing facility in Botswana by 2010, along with it establishing confidence and dignity among Batswana who labour and were dedicated to the vision and dream of these two gentlemen, influencing and inspiring young entrepreneurs to build their dreams and even dream of finding themselves partnering with CA Sales.
Despite what opposition politics chose to believe, it is Batswana who were employed, inspired, encouraged, remunerated and given the mandate to grow the business without being exploited and oppressed by the owners of the business. Many who have worked under the leadership of these two gentlemen and have become great businessmen can confidently express their gratitude for the impact they have had on their career paths and their personal growth while, even though money is never enough, just the state of mind; welfare and peace of working under their leadership was enough to assure financial security and stability. However, this lasted until 2014/2015 when the corporations came with their financial power to buy the business.
Enter the corporations. Unlike a private company, a corporation is a large company or group of companies authorised to act as a single entity and recognised as such in law. This means the company ceases to be close to the heart of the owners as a vision or a dream and becomes an opportunity to add to an already existing basket of investments. For CA Sales & Distribution, it meant that the monopoly and undivided attention from the owners becomes part of a larger family where a group of influential businessmen and women who had the opportunity to invest gather around a table and look at numbers and make decisions based on the numbers because they are more concerned about the qualitative part of the business than know the names of the employees or become more concerned about the output of the positions on the organogram than the health, wellbeing or individual growth of individuals holding those positions.
The owners do not become directly involved because of the many investments they have to focus on but need to appoint someone who they believe can bring the numbers or percentages they require to see on a spreadsheet. How these numbers are achieved becomes secondary to their concern and who achieves these numbers becomes less of their concern because the only concern of the people sitting around a table somewhere in South Africa is percentage growth in relation to where expenses need to be reduced without affecting revenues negatively.
This responsibility was then given to someone who is hired, an employee just like everyone else who is bombarded with many incentives called a CEO or COO, to represent the views of the businessmen and women sitting around the table in South Africa.
Therefore, it becomes the onus of the CEO to use his business acumen and interpersonal skills to assemble a team that will help him achieve these set objectives. Most unfortunate for the employees of CA Sales, we now had to endure the hope that under the new corporate set up, conditions would become more favourable than they were under the many years of leadership of Mr Ian Thompson and Mr Jagdish Shah, a conundrum that some of us eventually managed to escape from in pursuit of greener pastures.
Appointed to the task was Mr Claude Hassett, rumoured to have been a night club bouncer in South Africa before landing the position of CEO of CA Sales in Botswana. This became the choice leader to take over from the two visionary former owners of what became the biggest warehouse and Distribution Company in Botswana and a key contributor to the economy of Botswana. This was the man tasked with achieving the numbers required by the consortium in South Africa and to continue the legacy that was left behind by the two greats. In normal circumstances, one would expect such a huge organisation, which carries the welfare of hundreds of households, to carefully select a leadership that would maintain their dignity. Unfortunately, this was not the case because the person preferred for the huge task was someone who does not have any references to his career. With no experience in the industry, no financial or business acumen, and nothing to refer back to, our government still went ahead and issued a work permit under the pretext that there is no Botswana citizen qualified or experienced enough to take the wheel of this giant corporation. The question is what is compromised in the process or who is compromised in the process and who stands to lose in the process?
As the head of such a huge organisation, and with all the power of decision-making, nepotism became the order of the day as we saw the arrival of close friends and family members into the organisation. A new regime took over without considering experience or knowledge of the industry but strategically placed within the organisation to oppress or rule over. These appointments had nothing to do with merit but to break a culture where citizens worked freely. Those who had seen the glory days when the company rose from the ashes of 2006 when its warehouse facility burned to the ground were overlooked. The arrival of the close family members and friends into the system was a sign that a new era had arrived where it does not matter what is right but who can be trusted. The terms of employment for everyone changed, the atmosphere changed and the open door mentality instilled by the former owners was closed. It was no longer about the hundreds of employees but the close family members who were recruited into key positions.
When family members are appointed the characteristics of the infamous Mafia families are introduced. Rules and procedures governing any organisation are applied with double standards, not applying to those who are close to the top. Nepotism in any organisation always pushes out professionalism, opening doors for personal vendetta against those who challenge decisions and corruption over Standard Operating Procedures and bias in procurement requirement over proper procurement procedures. The entrance of family members saw many other businesses which had established themselves as suppliers of different services under the previous ownership sidelined to make way for businesses established by the family members and close associates of the new leadership.
Just like the Mafia concrete club that controlled the booming construction industry in New York under The Commission in the 1980s, friends and family members began controlling the services provided to CA Sales. Naturally, with this kind of arrangement, everybody has an opportunity to become rich, to exploit the system, to exploit employees, to exploit resources available in the CA Sales account and to actually manipulate pricing in their favour. Key to maintaining the existence and flourishing Mafia type exploitation of people and resources was intimidation through issuing directives, threats, summary dismissals and tongue lashings at all levels. Unfortunately, this is what emerges from appointments to key positions in corporate companies without considering experience, references or educational background. With a turnover in the region of billions of pula a year, a few millions can easily go unnoticed by the men and women sitting around the table in South Africa. However, the issue of concern is not really what goes missing from the kitty unnoticed but how, while all this is happening, the welfare of employees slowly moved from being relevant to dispensable.
Under the rule of the corporate set-up, the voices of the employees became whispers in the corridors where no employee could voice out their opinions, including senior managers who report to the CEO office. It is only because of desperation in this jobless economy that many of the employees within the gates and employ of CA Sales continue to endure the harsh conditions which prevail there year after year. Many having witnessed colleagues dismissed unfairly for personal reasons rather than professional reasons began to develop fear, which continued to grow as events unfolded within the structures of the business. As the CEO and his family members continued to be beneficiaries of services provided to the company through kickbacks or underhand dealings, some employees were exploited to perform duties for these companies outside of their duties at CA Sales. They were not able to voice out their complaints because the culture which developed was that the HR Department was given directives from the top to dismiss, meaning that even though an employee was supposedly called in for a hearing, it was just a formality justifying a premeditated decision. Due to the nature of these premeditated dismissal cases, many ended up at Labour Offices only to be settled out of labour courts with two to three month’s payments to silence complainants.
Unfortunately, with the extremely high employee turnover, some banks eventually desisted from providing loan services to CA Sales employees because they are considered a high risk. Apart from making it difficult for employees to be trusted by banks since the arrival of the new corporate structure, the company has failed to provide loan schemes with banks for the employees under the pretext that they are negotiating a better interest rate, a negotiation that has taken two to three years.
The labour department, investors and the Botswana Government seem to have learnt nothing from the nature of what is supposed to be Corporate Governance in Botswana. Corporate Governance should be protected because of the weight it carries in the economy and its contribution to the employment percentages of the nation. Due to the weight of the contribution of Corporate companies and multinationals to the economy, it would not be difficult to believe that they are allowed to get away with unethical conduct. The corporate culture that has emerged in Botswana is one that is evident that these are self-enrichment opportunities for those who are placed in executive positions. We have seen board members appointing themselves hefty sitting allowances and other benefits which could benefit lower level employees, a culture that seems to be overlooked by the Botswana Stock Exchange, company board chairmen and chairman of audit committees. When the government was willing to accept contributions to the COVID-19 Relief Fund, we witnessed instances where large private and corporate companies would donate large sums of money to the relief fund and later deduct certain percentages from employee salaries. This was a clear indication that their priority is maintaining their relationship with the government through these publicity stunts rather than employees.
Corporate governance includes principles of transparency, accountability and security without which a company may fail to reach its goals and collapse and significant financial losses for shareholders and employees who will find themselves unemployed. Corporations, being the major contributors to economies and pillars of the economy, should be able to positively impact and uphold the civil liberties of the people they employ in the nation. The welfare of employees is not limited to financial welfare but also mental welfare and health, which includes reduced stress levels or peace of mind. They should not take away freedom of expression, the right to go through proper disciplinary procedures, fair appointment to key positions, freedom of employing the skills invested by the government through education and the ongoing training interventions through the Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF).
Companies continue to benefit from these interventions by investing in their own training schools to receive both the training fees and the kickbacks from the fund while Batswana only benefit from the vague material and meals they are fed at these trainings. Corporate companies should be the first to testify to the effects that these interventions have impacted on their employees and translated into progression or promotions within the corporate structures. Unfortunately, companies continue to benefit from reimbursement regulations while employees remain in the same positions without any improvement in terms of career progression. Human Resource Development should translate into employee growth and development into better positions. But due to the oppression and exploitation of the corporate companies in Botswana, the fund is just another way of drawing financial benefits from the government of the people they are exploiting. Despite the training that the Government of Botswana is investing in its citizens, Batswana continue to train foreigners coming into positions ahead of them. Therefore, progression is only reserved for foreign nationals both in terms of career and financially.
There is need for the government to intervene in the corporate sectors during this time because after the end of the State of Emergency, many Batswana are going to lose their jobs. Most corporations were found to be providers of essential services during lockdowns, meaning that unlike other private businesses, their doors were not completely closed to business but continued to operate. These service providers should be at the forefront of building Batswana instead of oppressing them for their own benefit. With the current decline in forecast annual profits, there is a chilling wind that unsettles the minds of employees of these multinationals and corporations who are beginning to realise that their silence on issues of mismanagement of resources may eventually affect them after the end of the SOE. In addition to these woes despite the current SOE, we have also seen foreign nationals continue to be issued permits for positions in these multinationals and corporations when there are qualified and experienced Batswana and even though there are retrenchments and job cuts looming. We know that they will not be affected by retrenchments but citizens of Botswana will be the first casualties.
We have relatives and friends who have invested their lives in the employ of companies like CA Sales but feel threatened by the status quo of the economy. How many other Batswana are under the same oppression and exploitation and witness self-enrichment in the corporations but fear to talk about them because they fear victimisation? The same is happening with parastatals as we have witnesses in newspaper articles. These are the culprits who have over the years benefitted from the wealth due to ordinary hardworking citizens denying Batswana an opportunity to be part of economic progress of our nation.
This is a call on the government to establish a Commission of Enquiry that will deal with the multinational, parastatals and corporates to establish worker related treatment and dialogue to improve the working conditions of employees in Botswana. This is also a call on the Botswana Accountancy Oversight Authority (BAOA) to monitor or closely investigate audit firms that overlook certain accounting irregularities. As major players in the economy, corporations and Multinationals should be at the forefront of supporting government employment initiatives, instead of being the cause of citizen frustrations. What these organisations do has a huge impact on government objectives and nothing could change in economies without their influence. Are we so dull as a nation that it takes more than five years to grasp a role through a succession that most of these companies presumably have in place and thus the reason for extending certain work permits? Batswana’s soft nature should not be used to continue to exploit them but should be seen as an environment favourable for growth of any investment through proper treatment of our people. This message also includes Botswana citizens who have the privilege of sitting on boards of these organisations to consider the 80 percent citizenry that also has a right to benefit from the wealth of the economy, instead of being part of the self-enriching schemes at the expense of the welfare of their fellow citizens.
A Concerned Citizen