Can the real unionists please stand up!

By Tileni Mongudhi

On May Day, the official workers event was held in Namibia’s northern town of Eenhana. President Hage Geingob and the president of the National Union of Namibian Workers, the country’s largest trade union federation, Ismael Kasuto, officiated at the event packed with the country’s officialdom.

About 800kms away from the main event, in Windhoek, a small crowd of no more than 250 people dressed in mostly red and turquoise shirts, with a few red banners, marched through the capital’s quiet CBD to have their short event at the Zoo Park.

The group consisted of Shoprite and Checkers workers, who decided to march against what they called “inhumane and slave-like working conditions” they are subjected to by their employer.

They sang a liberation song in oshiwambo “ahawe ahawe ahawe, uukoloni ahawe ina tuu hala” (no we do not want colonialism). The workers also carried banners reading “down with capitalism”.

The workers also decided to use the event to sensitise the public about the fact that Shoprite decided to dismiss 130 employees for going on an unsanctioned strike in 2015. The company managed to get a court interdict preventing the workers from downing tools. The workers wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the company’s unilateral decision to only increase their meagre wages by R200. This was after their unions representatives failed to bring Africa’s largest retailer to agree on anything that would improve working conditions at the company.

Interestingly only one trade unionist, Herbert Jauch, attended the small event.

Jauch was invited to address the Shoprite workers by the lawyers who have been representing the affected workers pro bono for over two years now. None of the three trade unions representing the Shoprite workers in Namibia were present. The small march against Shoprite and its alleged appalling treatment of its employees might appear to be isolated but it is the same sordid tale told by many workers in Namibia.

In 2015, workers in the Namibian fishing sector decided to down tools after feeling that unions were doing little in fighting for improved labour conditions.

About 4000 workers lost their jobs after the industrial action was deemed illegal. At least 1 900 eventually ended up going back to work but the reminder remained on the streets as the employers refused to reemploy them.

The Southern Times has learned that at least 20 of the affected workers committed suicide because they could not cope with the realities they find themselves in.

“These guys were essentially sold out by their unions,” said Evilastus Kaaronda, who is the Namibian National Labour Organisation (Nanlo) president. Kaaronda, however, added that playing the blame game will not help in salvaging the situation and ensuring that the affected workers got their jobs back.

The question is then, what happened to the once vibrant trade unions of Namibia and the fearless revolutionaries who used to lead these workers’ movements?

The Southern Times held long discussions with unionists who agree that trade unions in the country are sleeping on the wheel while the Namibian worker is getting the raw end of the deal.

A question of law

Nanlo president Kaaronda believes that one of the major factors frustrating both unionists and the workers is the labour laws and the bureaucracy governing such laws. He puts emphasis on that fact that the unions’ strength is “limited by what the law permits.” He added that the labour law is characterised by so much red tape that it makes it difficult for workers to take industrial action because should the cumbersome process of downing tools not be followed as prescribed by law, the workers lose their jobs. He added that the process instils fear in both the workers and the unionists because one misstep and workers are jobless.

“Workers are also constantly reminded that there are so many job seekers on the roadside,” Kaaronda said, emphasising the fact that employers use the high unemployment rate in the country to threaten workers that they can be easily replaced.

While the aim of the labour law was to protect the workers, it appears as it has been having the opposite effect, with employers’ always taking workers to court because of technicalities that labour law processes were not followed correctly while ignoring the reasons leading to workers taking industrial action in the first place.

Kaaronda added that traditional radical unionism is almost rendered redundant by the labour law.

Inter-union rivalries

Veteran trade unionist and labour researcher Herbert Jauch said trade unions today are characterised by board room fights and turf wars not related to actual workers’ issues. He gave the Shoprite example where three different trade unions represented the workers, but the unions failed to unite and bargain for the workers because each wanted to be the sole bargaining agent.

“The law allows for more than one union to negotiate for the workers’ interests, but since these three refused to join forces, the employer took advantage of that,” Jauch said about what transpired at Shoprite two years ago.

He also pointed out that there was a new breed of unionist who lacked experience but more importantly had been more interested in their personal growth and gain than championing workers issues.

“These days nothing is happing on the shop floor,” he said pointing that unionist activities were now based in boardrooms without any workers’ participation.   

Politics

Both Kaaronda and Jauch pointed out that in Namibia, the largest trade union federation’s affiliation to the ruling party is one of the reasons making it irrelevant. Jauch said that Namibia’s ruling Swapo Party was a descendent of labour movements, the Owambo People’s Congress, which later became Owamboland People’s Organisation, later turned into Swapo, which became a liberation movement for all Namibians.

He said before Namibia’s independence, the NUNW as the largest trade union federation in the country, was a force and Swapo needed it as a partner.

In recent years, the NUNW has been characterised by union leaders failing to represent the workers and opting to dance to the tune of the political elite who appear more and more to be in bed with the employers if they themselves are not the employers.

So irrelevant has the NUNW become to Swapo that, for the first time since Independence, the NUNW did not have any representatives on the Swapo

Party list during the last National Assembly elections held late in 2014.

This is unlike the past were leaders like Namibia’s Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, fisheries minister and deputy minister of labour are the few unionists who remain in Parliament after graduating from the NUNW to represent the workers at both the legislative and executive levels of government. Many unionists have since retired from active politics, while others have moved on to becoming multi-millionaire businesspeople.

Kaaronda is also considered a victim of political meddling into union matters.

He was ousted during the lead up to the Swapo 2012 elective congress, with fears that as NUNW secretary general, he could sway the workers.

He was replaced by a ruling Swapo Party regional coordinator, who was relatively unknown in union circles.

While the NUNW has been reduced to an insignificant partner in the Namibian political space, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has been taking a more radical stance against the ruling ANC.

The Cosatu members on May Day, booed President Jacob Zuma off stage before he could address the main Cosatu workers day rally, in a show of force. Cosatu is currently at crossroads and is contemplating doing what the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) did in the late 1990s by disaffiliating from Zanu-PF and aligning with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

In the meantime the worker is in need of a champion.

May 2017
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