The Threats Facing Workers

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By Victor V. Kanzonyati

Industrial Action, Labour Hire Companies, Annual & Compassionate Leave in Namibia.

The employer community in Namibia has for many years held a rather dim view of worker attitudes towards work.

The Namibia Employers Federation (NEF) statement published in the Republikein of January 23, 2008 on leave entitlement and other issues and the editorial (political perspective) in The Namibian, 1st February 2008, on the attitude of workers generally and the NBC employee strike in particular are but a few examples of a string of negative perceptions that concern us.

These kind of statements are issued usually either during or after a strike or industrial action. In other instances, as in the promulgation of the much-maligned New Labour Act of 2007, they are issued to influence the public to adopt a negative stance towards certain provisions that favour workers’ interests more than they do those of the employers.

It has for example been said by industry bosses that 1.6 million productive days per annum stand to be lost when the leave regime that adds the few more days in compassionate and annual leave days is introduced.

It is consistently being shown and becoming apparent that these negative perceptions by employers are totally without foundation as they are not supported by any credible evidence.

Industrial Action (Strikes)

Namibia is by no means a strike prone economy. We can count less than 10 strikes in the 18-year history of our independence.

The few strikes that did occur were not only mostly legitimate but successful as well, in that they resulted in workers’ demands being met. The NBC strike of January is a classical case in point, of a strike that was both legitimate and successful.

There is a generally accepted presumption that well paid employees will tend to be motivated for an enthusiastic work attitude and improved productivity. On the other hand, ill paid and exploited workers will be less productive and generally be more grumpy and lacking in motivation.

The editorials referred to above perfectly captured these facts, namely that the NBC employees went through a five-year spell on an empty promise of a 9% salary and benefit adjustment.

To this empty promise, the NBC management sought to add another 6% salary increment promise without doing a thing to the first and outstanding 9%.

Interestingly though, the editor and many like minded employers will not make the link between the poor performance and the five-year 9% deficit in salary and benefit adjustment. On the contrary, to them workers are lazy and work only for a month-end pay cheque – finish and klaar!!

This attitude literally traverses the width and breath of the entire employer community in Namibia to the extent that it now also draws spokespersons from erstwhile promoters and protectors of workers’ interests and rights.

The talk about the need for hard work and increased productivity flows rather effortlessly from the lips of all and sundry – especially politicians, industrialists and armchair socio economic analysts.

We doubt if the workers will have much qualms with such demands for increased production and so forth, if it went together with commensurate good salaries, appropriately tailored perks and other employee benefits.

We are challenging employers including government to improve their employees’ conditions of work and salaries, particularly if they are really serious about increased productivity and hard work.

As it is now, government represented by our politicians has done close to nothing in the above respect.

Government employees have had to make do with unimaginably horrendous conditions of service and low salaries. Some of the benefits that applied to many job/employment categories, such as nursing, teaching, the agricultural extension workers and roads and telecommunication personnel have been scrapped.

In other cases qualified nurses, teachers and agricultural extension officers languish our streets without employment.

Salary and benefit adjustments are shelved for years on end in smartly disguised industrial/collective agreements signed in cahoots with unionists whose commitment to the workers course is clearly dubious.

The parastatals are in no better position either. The record of unresolved presidential commissions of inquiry into fraudulently lost funds and other general abuse is legendary in its dimensions.

The amounts of money that disappear is enough to discourage even the most fool-hardy of optimists to ever expect any improvement in employee conditions of services and salaries, especially for those employed by these parastatals.

There is no moderation in the manner and conduct of abuse at the parastatals and as a result of the mega-ton theft these employees suffer – a worse fate than those in government service.

Virtually all parastatals are broke and if they are not bailed out by government they are faced with real prospects of collapse. It goes without saying that parastatals that can hardly keep afloat are less likely to reward employees equitably and justly.

To say that the demise facing many of these institutions is not ascribable to any employee apathy, but to fraud, mismanagement of the resources of these institutions, by the managers, is to state the obvious.

Annual and Compassionate Leave

Leave in its various forms – annual, sick, disability, maternity and lately compassionate leave – is a relatively recent invention in the long history of the interactions between employers and the employed.

Before its introduction, employers were perfectly happy to extract from employees literally unending shifts of working time spreading from days into the nights – without end. Little or no regard was given to age, sex (gender) or physical condition of the workers.

That there is leave entitlement at all in the workplace is the result of many years of arduous struggle and fierce agitation by the workers primarily and other benevolently inclined interest groups and not an act of atonement by the employers.

The traditional basis upon which employers justified their continued merciless exploitation of the workers has become obsolete and not in keeping with contemporary and dominant labour relations practice.

The only thing that they (employers) now turn to, to try and keep the workers spell-bound to their exploitative escapades is some myth referred to as “the sensitivity of foreign inventors”.

A nation endowed with the type of natural resources and other attributes as we are and capable of attracting any investor from those investors desperately seeking investment opportunities and all in between, to the choosy or sensitive, should only blame itself if it should somehow choose the troublesome latter (choosy, sensitive) investors.

As a nation we must be able to position ourselves in such a way that we exact or wrest from the foreign investor a relationship that ensures a decent employment profile for our people, not the other way around.

If the objective circumstances on the ground nationwide justify two more additional annual leave days then that should be the case, irrespective of what the sensitive investor wants.

If the objective circumstances on the ground nationwide justify the provision of compassionate leave, let it be.

The workers, like the employers are anxious for wealth creation. The majority of Namibians will heartily cherish the idea of a wealthy nation where their children are schooled and healed at state expense and they know too that such wealth can only come about through industry and not sloth.

The wealth creation process must however be humane, and not the callous exploitative and insensitive regime that we have come to associate with our recent past.

Contract /Agency
Labour – Section 128

A wise saying has been making the rounds in industrial relations circles for some time now. It simply holds that ‘poverty anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere’.

In an attempt to roll back poverty and increase the possibilities for peace and prosperity to flourish, institutions such as the ILO and other interest groups have been promoting deliberate and practical ideas and steps – among them the “decent work philosophy or agenda” – (ILO).

The underlying theme of this agenda or philosophy is that work must be capable of providing the worker with a decent and reasonable livelihood through the provision of pensions, etc. not only during the currency of their employment, but even after the end of the working life.

By this is meant that work must enable the worker to see their children through education, provide the family with decent health insurance and all these in addition to properly feed, shelter and clothe the entire family.

There is no bigger threat to the above ideals, plans and to a greater degree, achievements of the ILO in this regard than the expanding use of the contract and agency labour.

The more jobs are casualised, the more workers are losing out on benefits such as pensions, death benefits, and maternity benefits etc., to make poverty and insecurity grow.

The net result of this is that the burden is offloaded from the employers on to the individual workers and their families and in some cases on to government.

Credible research has also shown that contract labour leads to poorer quality industry, lower standard of training and fewer opportunities for career progression, which lead to less motivation in the workforce and lower productivity.

Another stark character of casualisation of employment is that the more vulnerable groups in society such as women and the less educated are the first to suffer the cruelty of permanent job losses.

The whole world, from Japan in the far east to the Americas in the west and South Africa and New Zealand in the far south to Island and Russia in the far northern reaches of the globe, is up in arms against contract labour and the threat it poses to the institution of the ‘job’ and to peace in the world.

The only variable in this jigsaw is the solution sought to be employed by the various people conceived with the problem.

There are countries where people have deployed extreme extra parliamentary measures to curb the practice.

In other places as here in Namibia we chose the parliamentary route to halt it, as a point of departure. It does not mean that other solutions cannot be resorted to as time goes on.

The current Namibian employer fraternity should count their blessings because this very same contract labour system was among the evils over which the armed struggle in this country was waged not so long ago.

The world is currently seeking out a solution to this problem, with some sections advocating for an international governance code, an ILO Convention on this issue being among the solutions being mooted.

Outlawing the practice, as the Namibia parliament has done, is in our opinion a measure fully commensurate, if not less than the deeper danger contract labour poses to peace and a cohesive society.

– Victor V. Kanzonyati is the secretary general of the Public Service Union of Namibia (PSUN).

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