The leaders representing 4 000 fishermen who are striking over starvation wages and poor conditions of service yesterday had a candid discussion with President Hage Geingob, who listened attentively to their complaints. Among their protestations are harsh, slave-like working conditions at sea, not being paid overtime and not having medical personnel on the fishing vessels they operate.
The regional organizer of the Metal, Mining, Maritime and Construction Union (MMMC) Immanuel Petrus told the president at State House that the fishermen work long hours, without being paid salaries commensurate with their back-breaking labour.
The slave-driver supervisors also give the fishermen very little time to spend with their families, he informed Geingob, who obviously had a sympathetic ear.
Petrus explained that some fishermen spend 25 days on sea and when vessels offload offshore the fishermen are expected to go back to sea within a few hours again – all this to ensure the fat cats with fishing quotas thicken their wallets at the expense of their poorly paid staff.
Should fishermen fall ill while at sea they are told to wait until the vessel has completed its assignment, or alternatively they must wait for a vessel passing by to board to get back to shore for treatment.
Their grievances, Petrus added, are known to the relevant authorities.
“Rich people are violating us. The Ministry of Labour is allowing employers to abuse us,” said Petrus, adding that it pains them that certain individuals in the ministry “are not doing their job”, fueling speculation that some of these officials could have fishing quotas and want to protect their own interests at the expense of the seamen.
Petrus said the government must eradicate the “colonialism” existing in the fishing sector.
He said that fishing companies do not remunerate employees for working on public holiday and Sundays, adding that seamen earn a mere N$8 000 and less.
“The minister must wake up. I am not afraid to speak the truth,” Petrus told Geingob, adding that leaders they elected are turning them away, hence their last resort was to go on strike, which Attorney General Sacky Shanghala said was illegal.
Although the fishermen’s strike is illegal, after attentively listening to their woes as vocalised by their representatives, Geingob remarked that slavery would not be condoned in an independent country.
“We cannot allow slavery to continue in a free country,” he said.
Noting that everybody was welcome to do business in Namibia, Geingob stressed that it would not be done at the expense of the basic human rights of Namibians. “Companies must comply with our laws, they must come on our terms.”
“We cannot be a partner in denying people their basic human rights,” said the president.
Geingob asked for the names of the companies that do not pay overtime but also commented that the manner in which the sick are treated on the vessels is “inhumane”.
“We as government cannot endorse that,” said Geingob who tasked the attorney general and the fisheries minister to get the names of companies violating employees.
The MMMC is an affiliate of the Namibian National Labour Organisation (Nanlo) and fishermen were accompanied by Evilastus Kaaronda of Nanlo.
Kaaronda said he was content with the reception and outcome of the meeting.
“The reception was warm but the warmth of the reception is best measured on the outcome of the meeting,” he said, adding that the employees would only be guaranteed their security once compliance orders are issued to the offending companies.
“These are employees and can’t go back on the streets,” he stressed.
Kaaronda explained that the illegal strike started in response to illegal working conditions in the fishing industry. He said the illegal working conditions were confirmed by the Ministry of Labour through special inspection conducted last year.
Kaaronda said that overtime pay and pay for Sunday work are not negotiable. “ It should be paid according to the law and not subjected to collective bargaining.”
“What government should have done was to issue compliance orders to the fishing companies but they didn’t do that. We requested the labour commissioner to issue a compliance order to be turned into a court order so that when companies refused we would file contempt of court,” he told New Era yesterday.
The ministry’s inaction, said Kaaronda, is tantamount to telling “workers go to work and help the companies violate your rights and there is no difference in telling workers to violate their own rights”.
The fishermen arrived in Windhoek on Tuesday evening with the intention of spending the night at an open space opposite Wernhil Park. Their intention was to meet the president the next morning (Wednesday), but they changed their plans and they instead spent the night at Paaltjies at Brakwater.
Geingob commended the fishermen, saying they “behaved well”.