Namibia’s labour headache

However, this has had one remarkable result: the proliferation of foreign skills from fellow African countries in a manner not witnessed elsewhere on the continent. Unlike in other economies within the Southern African Development Community, where xenophobia has become the order of the day with locals blaming expatriates for every ill, Namibians have come to embrace their fellow Africans as significant contributors to their own country’s economic success. To that effect talks have been underway between the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI), the Namibia Manufacturers Association (NMA), the Namibian Employers Federation (NEF) and the Ministry of Home Affairs to relax the procedures for application of work permits for foreigners who have skills that are essential to the country’s economic welfare. Tarah Shaanika, the CEO of the NCCI last week said; “We have been working with the NMA, NEF and the Ministry 9of Home Affairs) to see how the problem of skills shortages could be addressed because it has become apparent that our economy is bleeding due to a shortage of skills.” Shaanika dismissed as a misconception the claim that importation of foreign skills was detrimental to local employment. In actual fact, he said, foreigners created jobs in the sense that many times, projects grind to a halt due to the lack of certain skills domestically. “It is a misconception that importing skilled staff will leave the locals unemployed. As it is right now we’ve had numerous companies complaining to us about their projects being on hold because they are struggling to find the right person for the job,” Shaanika said. This, according to him, further frustrated the companies that now had to keep unskilled employees on their payroll while projects were put on hold. Talks between the parties on the relaxation of documentation for foreigners have been ongoing and the last meeting on the matter was two weeks ago. “We want government to offer skilled expatriates work permits up from three to five years while Namibia is working on building local skills in the required fields,” Shaanika said. But why is it taking so long for Namibia to cultivate its own skills base? Shaanika said; “We have ourselves to blame for not having created the skills that our country requires in the previous 20 years. “One good thing that government did was to ensure that everybody had access to an education. But it failed at ensuring the quality and relevance of the education.” Creating skills, Shaanika pointed out, would take a long time. And while the country is working on that the economy has to continue to grow and a skilled somebody has to be there to contribute to this growth. “That’s where the importation of skills becomes important,” he said. The unions speak However, trade unions do not agree with the importation of skills. The secretary-general of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), Evalistus Kaaronda told this newspaper that the government must first identify which are the priority industries so that the country knows which skills are in short supply. “I am not sure if Namibia even knows what skills it needs. We don’t have an industrial policy thus we don’t know which industries are key to Namibia. So how do we know which skills are of essence to Namibia?” He added that the country’s immigration laws were not as cumbersome as is often alleged. If that was the case, according to the trade unionist, there would not be so many foreigners working in Namibia. He said a November 2010 survey by the NEF and other labour sector stakeholders – including the government, the International Labour Organization and the Institute for Public Policy Research – on the subject was insufficiently scientific. The survey established that the skills shortages problem in Namibia was not getting any better any time soon. While no detailed breakdown of skills shortages in each industry was done due to time constraints, according newspaper New Era, the survey confirmed the seriousness of the problem and identified the areas of expertise in which skills shortages are most critical. Among the areas the worst-affected sectors are the medical, engineering and financial services fields. Pan African perspective Maureen Hinda, who is the Chairperson of the Pan African Centre of Namibia (PACON), said any government’s policies should foster unity and integration of African countries. She, however, cautioned that opening of borders should not be to the detriment of local skills development. “The playing field needs to be levelled, thus there should be strategies in place through which the country can ensure that while foreigners are given jobs, the necessary skills are also transferred to locals. “If the country imports skills without a clear strategy and agenda to uplift locals then the equilibrium will be lost,” Hinda. She said she was yet to see a clear government position on the matter, especially with regards to filling the skills gap. PACON is currently engaged in building organizational structures and activities to ensure the socio-economic and cultural development of Africans. The process of empowerment is envisaged through harnessing Africa’s intellectual, material and cultural resources. The organization, amongst other things, strives to preserve and enhance the cultural and natural heritage of the continent while discouraging retrogressive aspects of some African cultures. No to Xenophobia Be that as it may be, Namibia remains anti-xenophobic. This is in sharp contrast to some sections of South African society and this brings to the fore question as to what may have led to xenophobia among some people in that country. The question and answer could be crucial to Namibia not going down the same path. Bronwyn Harris, a former project manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation at the University of Cape Town, South Africa attempted to answer this question in a 2002 paper titled “Psychopathology and Social Prejudice”. Harris posed three hypotheses he said could be instructive on why there is xenophobia. These are scape-goating, bio-cultural, and the isolation hypothesies. It was argued that in post-apartheid South Africa, people’s expectations were heightened; and realization that the delivery of promises was not immediate led to discontent and indignation. People then became more conscious of their deprivation than ever before and this, according to the author, presented an ideal situation for xenophobia to take root. “Foreigners, this theory suggests, often become such scapegoats. This is because they are interpreted as a threat to jobs, housing, education and health care,” Harris wrote. The foreigner becomes a scapegoat – someone to blame for social ills and personal frustrations. As such, according to Harris, the foreigner becomes a target for hostility and violence. The hypothesis does not clarify why the foreigner, and not another social group or individual, comes to signify unemployment, poverty and deprivation. It does not explain why nationality is the determining feature of such scapegoating. Another hypothesis that Harris raised is that of isolation. He said xenophobia could be a consequence of apartheid South Africa’s exclusion from the international community, which he writes may have led to South Africans not being accustomed to being amidst foreigners. With integration after independence, South Africans came into contact with an unknown – the foreigner. “The interface between previously isolated South Africans and unknown foreigners creates a space for hostility to develop.” However, many South African communities had interacted with migrant labour, mostly seeking jobs in mines. So why do some people become xenophobic while others do not? This gives rise to another hypothesis: bio-cultural factors. This hypothesis locates xenophobia at the level of visible differences in terms of physical biological factors and cultural differences. These are all hypotheses but Namibia would do well to explore these further so that the country does not experience the kind of tension that can become associated with an influx of foreigners.

August 2011
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