The bitter after-taste of the contract labour system still lingers in Namibians’ mouths, after more than two decades of independence. Granted our democracy, our duty-bound MPs have done a good job to repeal and rid the country of exploitative labour laws.
Namibia’s progressive and morally obliged leaders have over the years introduced new laws promoting and instilling social justice, human rights and dignity, while encouraging free enterprise for the private sector to play a meaningful role as a creator of wealth.
It is a sad thought that in the quest to maximise profits the private sector often neglects its social responsibility to workers and the communities in which such enterprises flourish.
In a free enterprise system – or capitalism, the private sector has every right to minimise costs and maximise profits. After all, profit is the main objective of every business.
However, seemingly often the private sector forgets that a sustainable economy is not only one in which businesses continue to turn in profits for shareholders, but where shareholders continue to recapitalise and invest in business diversification and the wellbeing of workers, while paying attention to social responsibility in their communities.
Such is an economy that does not only provide jobs, but empowers workers to become sub-contractors and service providers to the companies that once employed them, with workers becoming employers by themselves and employing many others.
An economy where the community has a sense of ownership to the company operating in their neighbourhood, village or constituency not because of the salaries and wages drawn by workers but because the company empowers social programmes in the community – paying school fees for the vulnerable and promoting skills development through bursaries and internship.
It becomes a symbiosis that seems often to be lacking within the Namibian economy.
As such, government is often left to deal with the social issues through legislative and regulation process, which could appear punitive and unwarranted to the private sector.
Which brings to the fore the issue of the Labour Amendments Act 2012 – a section that has replaced Section 128 of the Labour Act of 2007.
Discussions to ban labour hire companies stretch back to the pre-independence years, with trade unions at the forefront.
Correctly, something had to be done about the manner in which many Namibian workers continued being exploited and the Namibian Employers Federation (NEF) does agree.
The courts were also right that government could not just issue an outright ban on labour hire as that infringes on the rights granted in the constitution, hence the Labour Amendments Act.
In its simplicity, the Act addresses the current scenario that is prevalent in the Namibian labour force: Company PQR employs Employee X.
ABC Grocer wants an employee it can call on during its busiest days, which is Wednesday from lunchtime, Saturday mornings and Monday evenings. ABC Grocer goes to Company PQR, which contracts Employee X to ABC Grocer, at a management and administration fee.
However, Employee X does not get paid an equal hour rate to other employees of ABC Grocer. Neither does Employee X has rights to demand better benefits from ABC Grocer because the employer is Company PQR.
Joining a trade union and demanding better benefits would prompt ABC Grocer to ask Company PQR to remove the troublesome Employee X and replace him/her with a non-complaining Employee U.
Company PQR is not the employer, it is simply an agency, albeit it gets paid to put Employee X at the work station.
Under the new amendments, ABC Grocer will assume all obligations of an employer for Employee X, and Employee X will have a guarantee of basic conditions of employment, safety and health at the workplace and protection against unfair dismissal, just like the permanent employees at ABC Grocer.
Employee X’s terms of employment should not be less favourable than the permanent employees performing similar work, and ABC Grocer will not differentiate between Employee X and the permanent workers.