Chinese Confronted on Labour Abuse

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By Mbatjiua Ngavirue WINDHOEK The Chinese business community in Namibia was yesterday confronted head-on over alleged unfair labour practices by many of their members. At a consultative meeting called by Labour Commissioner Bro-Mathew Shinguadja, Chinese business leaders were subjected to a barrage of criticism about their failure to adhere to Namibian labour laws. This includes persistent claims of hiring and firing workers at will and failure to comply with established minimum wages in certain industries. Chinese businesses have also been criticised for not providing employees with minimum benefits and failing to respect work-hour regulations for public holidays and Sundays. Another common complaint against Chinese companies raised by Shinguadja was their negative attitude towards trade unions. There have been allegations of “union-bashing” at Chinese companies and not allowing trade unions to organise at their workplaces. This, Shinguadja said, made it impossible for a proper and orderly collective bargaining process with management to take place. He acknowledged that one of the reasons he called the meeting was because Chinese investment and labour practices in Namibia had been the subject of widespread public debate recently. Shinguadja said Namibia valued the investments made by Chinese businesspeople and their contribution to the Namibian economy. However, this did not mean they do not have to comply with the statutory provisions of Namibian labour law just like any other investor. They were reminded that compliance with relevant statutory requirements was not a matter of choice, but an obligation of both employers and labour. “Orderly collective bargaining is not optional but a prerequisite for conducive labour relations, high productivity, profit and better conditions of employment,” Shinguadja said. Representatives of trade unions, the Namibian Employers Federation, the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Investment Centre and an observer from the Chinese Embassy also attended the meeting. The Chinese businesspeople present at the meeting listened to the criticism mostly in silence, with only two venturing to defend their companies. Chris Lim of China Jiansu company argued that labour problems often arose because of communication problems, because while some Chinese businesspeople could express themselves in English, others could not. Lim also pointed to a lack of skills in the country, saying that often Namibians claimed to know a certain job but after a few hours it would become clear they did not. “We cannot afford to waste money by employing people who are not qualified to do the job. We often have to send them back to the Vocational Training Centre to upgrade their qualifications,” he said. Mara Zaire of the Namibia Investment Centre however pointed out that according to the Investment Act it was the responsibility of investors themselves to train Namibians. General Secretary of the National Union of Namibian Workers’ (NUNW) Evilastus Karonda rejected the perception that the unions were going easy on Chinese companies for political reasons. The NUNW in fact made visits to places such as Katima Mulilo to investigate the alleged ill treatment of workers by Chinese businesspeople. The visits revealed their members were being “abused” by Chinese employers, particularly in terms of wages and benefits. Karonda pointed out that Namibian labour laws only reflected what was agreed on at the international level – agreements that China was part of. This meant many of the laws applicable in Namibia should also apply in China, and that the excuse of cultural differences should therefore not be a big factor. He said Chinese companies often submitted the lowest bid on construction tenders, but what value was this to Namibia in the long-term if it led to the abuse of Namibian workers. Chinese businesspeople were also accused of being insincere because they spoke English when there was no problem, but as soon as problems arose they would pretend to not understand the language. He also referred to Chinese companies alleged hostility to trade unions saying, “When someone joins a union, you come back tomorrow and he is no longer there.” The union leader appealed that for every foreign worker employed by Chinese companies there should be a Namibian understudy. He questioned why Chinese people should be brought to Namibia to do work such as bricklaying, as there were enough qualified Namibian bricklayers. Karonda further deplored the lack of a proper industrial policy in the country, which allowed foreigners to engage in retail businesses and even go to the extent of owning taxis. This not only drove local entrepreneurs out of the retail sector, but also diverted foreign investors away from the vital manufacturing sector. Paulus Hango of the Trade Union Congress of Namibia appealed for a minimum wage to be introduced in the retail sector. He further criticised the Namibian government for being reluctant to enforce laws regarding work permits. “If someone breaks Namibian laws they must be punished. Everything must be withdrawn, including work permits and trading licences,” Hango said.