The NUNW’s big Catch-22

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Windhoek

The National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW)’s involvement in the fishing industry as an employer
has put it in a tricky situation, with accusations flying thick and fast that the union federation’s perceived reluctance to deal with the grievances of striking seagoing workers is meant to protect its own interests.

Through its investment arm, Labour Investment Holdings (LIH), the NUNW is an employer in the fishing sector through its 51 percent shareholding in Gazania Investment 128, which has rights to catch horse mackerel,
monk and sole fish. It also has 13.33 percent shareholding in Ovanhu, a consortium that owns equity in Bidvest Namibia, a Namibia Stock Exchangelisted company that generates nearly 80 percent of its revenues from fishing.

NUNW’s investment arm also has 25 percent shareholding in Twafika, part of Namsov Fishing Enterprises (Namsov). Namsov in turn is a subsidiary of Bidvest Namibia. While NUNW bosses yesterday dismissed as “undisciplined” striking workers who have joined rival union Namibian National Labour Organisation (NANLO),
labour experts asked the labour ministry to speed up the processes of protecting workers not satisfied with their working conditions.

“We would rather represent disciplined workers than undisciplined workers, who left to engage in strikes,” NUNW secretary general Job Muniaro said yesterday of the workers who have resorted to striking through NANLO.
However, trade union researcher and labour expert Herbert Jauch was at pains to point out that it is
the workers who would lose out if unions in the country continue to fight one another, instead of uniting
to fight for workers’ rights, irrespective of their affiliation.

“Workers’ rights are violated and when workers’ rights are violated, as with all other rights, they must
be restored immediately,” Jauch said. “The procedures need to be re-looked at. Otherwise you invite trouble,
wildcat strikes and illegal industrial actions,” he said. He pointed at the case of employers who get away
with violating workers’ conditions of employment for a period under the pretext of ongoing negotiations,
but when workers engage in illegal strike action in protest against such working conditions, the labour law is
invoked to protect the very company exploiting the workers.

NUNW bosses did not appear at all perturbed by assertions that the unions’ direct involvement in business
– as significant investors and shareholders in industries where workers are crying about exploitation
– has turned union leaders into capitalists, who no longer have the gusto to champion the voices of ordinary
workers. NUNW president Ismael Kasuto, who briefly spoke to New Era yesterday, with a promise of sending
a detailed response with input from various NUNW leaders, brushed aside such suggestions, saying they
are merely comments from workers who are “not engaged in union structures  at branch or national level –
through which to hold their leaders accountable.” Jauch thinks otherwise. He says unions that venture
into business “present a problematic grey area, especially those unions that have to represent workers
employed at such companies [in which the union has a stake].”

“Unions need to discuss such business dealings in detail with their members first,” Jauch said of the need
for unions to be clear on the separation of their business interests and the workers’ interests. For Muniaro the assertion of conflicts of interest is nothing but “propaganda and lies”. He says union leaders are not barred from entering into business, and when they do, they do not forsake workers’ interests for the sake of profit.

Muniaro instead blames the striking workers and NANLO leaders for escalating what were essentially protracted negotiations over seamen’s wages and benefits into an issue about health and workers’ rights. “That is propaganda.
There were claims about death cases without naming names [in the case of the striking seamen]. I do not
want us to create a situation where we embrace what is not true,” he said.

NANLO led a relatively successful strike of seamen, managing to secure an audience with President Hage Geingob last week, thus amplifying the fishermen’s plight nationally and eventually forcing the fishing industry to conclude
an agreement with NUNW affiliated unions, which NANLO and striking workers have of course rejected, citing non-inclusion in the negotiations. This week NANLO also led the wildcat strike at TransNamib, where drivers
abandoned trains, while TransNamib sought an urgent court interdict, which it got yesterday after two
failed attempts. NANLO’s Evilastus Kaaronda, who was fired as NUNW secretary general three years ago, did not respond to the request for comment, despite numerous phone calls and text messages left on his mobile
phone throughout the day yesterday.

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