Revered founding director of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) and now labour researcher and educator, Herbert Jauch, says the labour movement in Namibia has weakened and must be reformed.
In an interview yesterday with New Era ahead of Workers Day next week, Jauch said although the picture is mixed, the overall Namibian labour movement seems to have lost focus over the last 10 years.
He added that trade unions’ militancy gradually declined after independence but the improvement of living and working conditions through collective bargaining only benefited the well-organised industrial workers, like those in the mining and fishing industries as well as those in the public service.
“The vast majority of the working class – the unemployed, informal sector workers, casual workers, domestic workers – has not benefited from collective bargaining and thus still experience high levels of poverty,” he said.
According to him some unions have done their best to represent workers effectively and build their capacity to advance their interests.
“Some unions have engaged on policy issues and understood that workers’ interests are not limited to the workplace but also have to be tackled at a broader, societal level,” he said.
Jauch said the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) in particular was affected by severe internal conflicts which have weakened the impact of the federation.
“Due to the severe rivalry between unions, workers interests were sacrificed, for example in the case of Shoprite,” he said, adding that unions seem to have forgotten their own slogan of “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
He said some of the challenges faced by trade unions are the continual violation of workers’ rights and non-adherence to provisions of the Labour Act across many industries.
“Several sectors of the economy are still poorly unionised (for example farm workers, domestic workers, informal economy workers, contract workers, etc.) which means that collective bargaining hardly takes place there and employers decide on their own which employment conditions they will offer,” he said.
Jauch says even in sectors where minimum wages were formally introduced, like those for farm workers, security guards, domestic workers and construction workers, many workers remain exposed to highly exploitative practices.
In this regard, he advises trade unions to start focusing on those workers that are still left out and do not enjoy any protection from unions.
He said the labour movements should also broaden the debate on poverty and inequality in the country and how unions can successfully challenge the prevailing free market ideology and practices through economic and political struggles.
After all, he said, Namibia’s huge levels of socio-economic inequalities cannot be addressed without tackling the broader socio-economic, political and ideological framework that underpins and maintains them.
On a positive note, Jauch says despite all these challenges, there are also some encouraging signs.
He said that in recent years some unions have shown a willingness to look at themselves critically and improve their practices.
“Some (like the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union – MANWU) have started to focus on the recruitment and empowerment of women and young workers who had only played a marginal role in many unions before,” he said.
According to him, some unions have already started to build the capacity of their shop stewards, recognising that workers’ self-organisation and control lie at the heart of union power.
“Some unions have even started organising vulnerable workers like those on contracts and in other precarious forms of employment,” he said, adding that other unions have taken steps to engage in broader policy issues beyond the workplace.
“These are encouraging signs that renewal is possible and some unions might experience significant membership growth and levels of support in the years to come.”