Labour Unrest Goes Viral

Unfulfilled promises responsible for increased labour discontent

Windhoek – Namibia is the latest on a long list of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa grappling with increased incidents of labour protests.

Since the beginning of this year, a string of labour strikes have affected close to 40 countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Angola, Lesotho and Nigeria.

Hundreds of thousands of public and private sector workers across the continent have gone on strikes demanding improved working conditions, notably higher wages.

Labour unrests and strikes have become a nagging headache for many African governments, as workers ‑ both in the private and public sector ‑ take to the streets to demand better working conditions.

South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy, is worst affected by the labour turmoil after illegal and violent strikes erupted in the mining sector resulting in the death of close to 47 people at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine.

The South African government is holding its breath, as tension remains high, with thousands of police officers and municipal workers threatening strike if their demands for improved remunerations are not met.

This past week, authorities in Namibia have unsuccessfully pleaded with hundreds of teachers from public schools to end an illegal countrywide strike, which is in its second week.

Frustrated teachers in the Khomas region voiced their displeasure at the slow pace of negotiations and accused their representative union, the Namibia National Teachers Union (NANTU) leadership of keeping them in the dark.

The strike, which has spread to other parts of Namibia, with teachers from public schools calling for salary increments citing high cost of living and rising prices of basic commodities.

Teachers vowed to stay put until the government addresses their grievances, despite a High Court ordering them to return to work.

Disgruntled nurses, pharmacists and their assistants under the guise of Namibia Nurses Union (NNU) have in the past threatened to shut down state hospitals if their grievances are not addressed.

But this week, some nurses in the capital boycotted their duty stations and joined the striking teachers at the Khomasdal Stadium in the capital, were teachers in Khomas have been meeting every morning.
 
• Wage Deal

Meanwhile, the Namibian Government and labour unions, NANTU and NAPWU, have reached an agreement on an 8 percent salary increase for civil servants across the board.

In a joint press statement issued on Thursday afternoon, the two bargaining unions announced that the increment is effective from April 1, 2012. Housing allowance for public sector workers below the management cadre has also been adjusted.

The negotiating parties also agreed on a 10 percent salary increase for 2014/2015.

This is far below the 40 percent increment the striking teachers have been demanding.

Currently, the Government housing subsidy is capped at N$450 000 for civil servants, which is way below the current market price, especially in the capital Windhoek and other major towns.

This has shut public servants out of the formal housing market, as the government is unable to subsidise them to buy houses.
Some commentators claim that the agreement is not likely to soothe tensions among government workers.

They claim that the leadership of the two bargaining unions have flouted the procedures by sealing the deal without the input of their members.

“The standard procedure is that they (union leaderships) are supposed to report back to the members before they engage in any binding decision.

“Now it is up to the civil servants to decide on the way forward,” says a union leader, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal amid the on-going illegal strike.

• Government Caution

Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Stanley Simataa, at a press conference on Tuesday cautioned civil servants to guard against taking the law into their own hands. Adding  that the teachers got it wrong by implying that “if you want anything to be done you must go on strike. That is a wrong impression, because it is reckless to indulge in illegal strikes”.

Simataa said, “We have seen it in other countries, the damages it has caused. There are rules and procedures to rectify the situation rather than indulging in illegal strikes because it only exacerbates the situation.”

• Blame Government

Commenting on the increasing incidences of labour turmoil in Africa, researcher Anne Kamau noted that wage disputes are driving most of the strikes in the public sector.

“Often, African governments can be discriminatory in the way they award wage increases for civil servants.

“In other instances, African governments have reneged on promises of wage increases or reforms.

“For example, Kenyan members of parliament in the past have increased their own salaries while keeping the salaries of civil servants the same.

“The Kenyan government also promised to carry out reforms in the public health care sector, improve working conditions and increase wages for doctors, but then never followed through,” Kamau commented.

“When a wave of labour strikes paralyses public sector services, the government is often to blame.

“A government is responsible for ensuring that resources are prioritised and shared fairly across sectors and that civil servant wages are synchronised equitably.

“For many African countries, some unnecessary disruptions to the provision of public services could be avoided if wage increases for all civil servants were factored in from the onset of budgeting process.
 
• Lesson for Governments

Kamau cautioned that the rising number of labour strikes in Africa is a wake-up call for African governments to consider several issues.

Kamau, a research fellow at Africa Growth Initiative, said government first needed “to look at labour markets with a renewed interest to revise laws governing the role and powers accorded to collective bargaining unions with a view to streamline them”.

“Second, revise minimum wages, wage increases and dispute resolution policies in line with the latest economic developments in the country and international standards to ensure fairness and equity.

“Third, ensure that negotiations involving unions that represent essential emergency professionals do not break down and go to strike since people’s lives could be at stake.

Finally, Kamau called for a deliberate incorporation of wage increase policies in the national budgeting process.

These reforms would go a long way in minimising the growing number of strikes across Africa, she said.

November 2012
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