More Pressure on Ramatex

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK The troubled Ramatex factory suffered another setback when one of its clients lost a major investment, partly as a result of the local factory’s poor treatment of workers. The treatment of workers at the Ramatex factory was one of the considerations that influenced the Norwegian Government when it decided to disinvest in Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retail store. Ramatex supplies textile products to Wal-Mart. The Norwegian Government Petroleum Fund, one of the world’s biggest pension funds, invested a total of US$415 million as of December 31, 2005 in Wal-Mart. The retail store suffered the disinvestment from the fund for serious and systematic abuses of human rights. Ramatex, a Malaysian-owned company, makes products for western corporations including Nike, Puma, Wal-Mart, Sears and Otto Versand. In a press statement about the exclusion from the fund – which also affects mining group Freeport – Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said the decision to stop investing in the retail store was based on allegations that “Wal-Mart is implicated in violations of human rights and labour rights in its businesses operations.” The assessment of the council encompasses Wal-Mart’s business operations in the USA and Canada and its suppliers in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Lesotho, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Malawi, Madagascar, Swazi-land, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia. “The main suppliers to Wal-Mart in these countries (Namibia, Malawi and Madagascar) are Asian-owned textile factories. The Council is aware of a report dealing with working conditions at such factories in these countries. Here too, there are consistent accounts of long working days, low wages, injuries due to lack of protective equipment and various forms of abuse and discrimination,” the Council reported. A publication of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) on Ramatex in 2004 said workers at the factory were very unhappy about their wages, which forced them to work for very long hours to make a bit more money. Last year, the Namibia Food and Allied Workers Union said the basic pay of the workers ranged from N$500 to N$700 per month. “Sometimes, you work very hard and you are expecting a commission because we are told that if you reach a certain production level, you qualify for commission. End of the month, there is no commission. Sometimes the agreement was that you would get 85 cents per T-shirt, but when the commission appears, on the pay slip, the addition is one cent. Imagine what one will do with one cent,” one of the workers who were interviewed in the publication said. The publication “Ramatex, the other side of the fence” said the workers were having difficulty in making ends meet and were thus forced to live beyond their means. “The majority said they are hardly left with any money to buy enough food let alone clothing,” said the booklet. A campaign for workers rights, Jobs for Justice, this month called for Wal-Mart to be quarantined because “it is classified as a danger to public health.” Offences of the retail giant according to the campaign include: “Poverty wages, racial and gender discrimination, economic devastation for local communities and global exploitations. Other violations include environmental abuses, labour law violations and union busting, immigrant exploitation and health care infractions.” In 2004, Ramatex was again in the spotlight after 400 Bangladeshis who were recruited as skilled workers were deported back to their country. The migrant workers were said to have been lured to Namibia by ruthless agents who had promised them the chance to earn better salaries to support their families. After paying as much as N$21 000 to secure work in Namibia, they earned a salary of N$720 a month. One third of their salary was deducted for food and they were made to live in crammed and squalid conditions in one house with only one bathroom. In its recommendations to the Petroleum Fund last year, the Fund’s Council on Ethics said “An extensive body of material indicates that Wal-Mart consistently and systematically employs minors in contravention of international rules, that working conditions at many of its suppliers are dangerous or health hazardous, that workers are pressured into working overtime without compensation, that the company systematically discriminates against women in pay, that all attempts to unionise by the company’s employees are stopped, that employees are in a number of cases unreasonably punished and locked in, along with a number of other circumstances …” In its recommendations to the Norwegian Ministry of Finance, the council on Ethics noted that Wal-Mart is alleged to run its business operations in a manner that contradicts internationally recognised human rights and labour rights standards, both through its suppliers in a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and in its own operations. The council also noted that Wal-Mart exerted influence on the working conditions within the supplier network as it gives “it substantial market influence in the supplier industry. In fact, the company makes no secret of the fact that it imposes very stringent requirements on its suppliers to get them to cut their prices, enabling Wal-Mart to resell at low prices to the consumers.”