On the Spot: State of the Unions

On the Spot: State of the Unions

New Era journalist Kuzeeko Tjitemisa this week had an interview with the director of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI), Michael Uusiku Akuupa, on trade unions.

From the look of things it seems trade unions have lost focus when it comes to the struggle for workers’ well-being and rights. Do you agree with this perception?

It depends from which vantage point you are looking at it. The world over trade unions represent only about 10 percent of workers. There are many workers that are not organised in trade unions and represent themselves in different ways. In Namibia a lot of workers are not yet organised, especially in the informal economy sector. Indeed there are trade unions that have lost focus and the ability to protect workers wellbeing and rights, because they have no capacity to do that. Some unions and umbrella federations are financially weak; as a result core functions are not easily expedited. So, instead of agreeing to a blanket statement that trade unions have lost it, it is important to consider contexts in which they operate.

Workers’ Day is around the corner. How will Workers Day be commemorated this year?

So far we have heard that trade unions will celebrate May Day in various parts of the country, but we do not have details as to how these will develop. However, we learned about themes such as: ‘Workers demand effective Protection on Health and Safety’ from NUNW and ‘Promote Employment by Supporting Inclusivity; One Namibia, One Erf’ from TUCNA. On closer look the themes speak to the current socio-economic situation in Namibia, but one needs to discern them closely for further clarity.

It is well known that rivalries still exist between various trade unions. Do you think Workers Day can be used to unite all Namibian unions, so they have a stronger voice?

Ideally trade unions should have common ground as worker representatives and indeed May Day should be used to present a united front. It is important to acknowledge individual principle positions, but solidarity is also crucial if the workers agenda on wellness is to be pursued effectively.

Does being affiliated to a certain political party impact the effectiveness of unions in addressing worker interests?

Affiliation should also be viewed contextually. There could be advantages and disadvantages for trade unions to be affiliated. Importantly, it is also crucial to understand an accord that guides affiliations. One advantage can be the proximity at which policy can be influenced, especially if trade unions that are affiliated are effective. However, there can also be complacency if the concerned [unions] become too comfortable, to the detriment of workers.

Would you agree that trade unions should not only address workers’ interest, but also their productivity? The perception is that trade unions mostly focus on workers’ interests and not on raising productivity. What is your view on this?

Trade unions should advocate for workers’ interests. However, they may not address productivity issues if they are not in the know as to how productive and effective they are at the work place. Thus it is important that there is openness about organisations’ wellbeing in financial terms and between the employees and employer. If there is no openness about organisational dealings and finances relations between workers and employers become suspicious. Openness enhances a sense of belonging and ownership.

What are some of the main concerns and challenges Namibia’s unions face today when it comes to securing and advancing the rights of their members?

Trade unions face serious financial constraints. For instance, certain trade unions are not able to remit affiliation fees to umbrella federations and continental bodies that seek to drive the workers’ agenda at national and continental level. The same can be said about trade union members that are not able to remit their contributions due to administrative red tape. This is equally so in the informal sector, where trade unions have failed to organise workers. Informal sector workers need to be organised and they can be an important resource for trade unions. So, financial difficulty hampers trade union operations significantly.

How would you describe the current relationship between trade unions and employers and what can be done to improve the relationship?

One can think of the instability that reigned in the fisheries sector recently. It is obvious that relations are not good at all. Thus there is a need for constant dialogue between trade unions with bargaining rights and companies. If information is freely and timely shared instabilities of such nature can be prevented.

How would you describe the current relationship between trade unions and employers and what can be done to improve the relationship?

One can only comment on the Harambee Prosperity Plan, as its details are somewhat revealed unlike the NEEEF. Harambee is an implementation or execution plan, as we are told. Some of the plans mentioned appear in the NDP4 already. We can only wait and see how it will be implemented.

Lastly, could you give us an overview of the state and strength of trade unions in the country?

 Trade unions are generally weak, but they are an important voice workers should not do without. Trade unions should not only concern themselves with workers’ welfare, they should also advocate for general social wellbeing and have a strong opinion on burning issues, such health, land, shelter and youth education. Trade unions have not adequately invested in their human resources, thus many workers end up with unresolved cases and problems.

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