Windhoek-Labour Minister Erkki Nghimtina has found himself at the centre of a tug of war between the union representing workers at Shoprite Checkers Group in Namibia, and the Employers’ Association, which has sided with Shoprite Checkers.
Yesterday, the union representing workers at Shoprite Checkers Group in Namibia expressed concern with the manner in which the Ministry of Labour has been handling the plight of the workers.
Not only do they accuse Nghimtina of being unable to resolve the impasse, they also hint that the Labour Ministry appears to have no capacity to effectively challenge and defend workers during its discussions with employers.
The union is now asking for Nghimtina, his special advisor Vicky ya Toivo, and the permanent secretary to step down if they are unable to protect Shoprite workers. The union’s missive came nearly a month after the Namibia Employers Association (NEA) accused Nghimtina of being prejudiced against Shoprite as an employer.
The employers also accused ya Toivo of conflict of interest in handling Shoprite labour affairs.
Yesterday, the Namibia Wholesale and Retail Workers Union (NWRWU) said a 2014 labour inspection found discrepancies with regard to contract workers and recommendations were made on how this should be corrected. However, Shoprite has ignored the recommendations and the Labour Ministry has not attempted to enforce the findings of its own labour inspector, who authored the report.
“We demand that if Shoprite was issued [with a trading licence] by this government, and after they have made money they no longer respect the status quo, [then] we ask… the president [Hage Geingob] to order the withdrawal of their trading licence until they have come to their senses.
“It does not make sense that you are made a slave by people who are in the country at your mercy,” the NWRWU secretary general Victor Hamunyela said at a press conference yesterday.
The unionist further said the labour inspector had asked that Shoprite allow for elections in which workers can decide which union they want to belong to, so that it can be clearly demonstrated which union has the majority to become the recognised bargaining union.
This too has not been done by Shoprite and the Labour Ministry has not seen to it that it is done.
“It is a pity that even the person we thought will help to [manage] the ministry as an accounting officer, who so long has been the Labour Commissioner, has literally done zero [to address the workers’ plight], for lack of better words,” said Hamunyela.
Members of the public acting in solidarity with the Shoprite workers undertook a one-hour demonstration in June, in conjunction with the Economic and Social Justice Trust, in order to highlight the workers’ plight.
“Despite repeated calls by various organisations and widespread support for the Shoprite workers, the company has still not dropped the disciplinary charges against over 100 of its employees in Windhoek,” the workers said then. The charges relate to a strike in 2015 that was sparked by the company’s “unfair labour practices”, the workers said.
In response to that demonstration Nghimtina called a press conference on July 20, where he acknowledged that Shoprite was exploiting its workers, and noted with concern the employment of permanent part-time workers for a period of more than 10 years and who make up nearly half of the Shoprite workforce. He also derided the poor salaries and lack of benefits.
“It is my great concern that as of today, the unhappy state of labour relations and instability continues at Shoprite, and that the low wages and poor conditions of employment persist and Shoprite remains anti-union. This does not reflect sound labour relations,” Nghimtina said then.
In response, the NEA shot back at Nghimtina saying the utterance by the minister shows that Shoprite would never receive fair treatment from the Labour Ministry. The employers’ association also accused the minister’s special adviser, Vicki ya Toivo, of conflict of interest in the matter.
Interestingly, the union levelled similar criticism against Nghimtina, ya Toivo and permanent secretary Bro Matthew Shingwadja.
Hamunyela called upon the appointing authority to ensure that Nghimtina, ya Toivo and Shinguandja are relieved from their duties and assigned somewhere where they will not have to deal with the lives of Shoprite workers.
Hamunyela also said the union believes that NEA president Cor Beuke played a role in the dismissal of 25 sales personnel from Shoprite, House and Home and OK Furniture Stores, but is now pointing a finger at the minister.
“The question is, how do we stay in this Namibian house when those entrusted and paid to do work on behalf of the government are not doing it and expect us to take it as normal?” Hamunyela asked.
He said they need a minister capable of handling rude and careless employers, such as Shoprite and many others, in line with the stipulations and rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Hamunyela also asked Nghimtina to introduce a minimum national wage and not to make political statements to silence the worried workers. The union also demanded that a ballot on recognition be held at Shoprite as a matter of urgency.
“We strongly feel as freedom fighters, Honourable Nghimtina, you can longer continue to be advised wrongly while the electorate continues suffering. Either you are with us, or against us,” the union leader said.