Sick labour relations

02 November 2012

Labour relations in this country seem to have spun out of control and are now in a complete state of disintegration and chaos.


It has become patently clear that neither the Government nor the trade unions really know what they are doing.

The fundamental problem seems to lie in a complete breakdown in trust between Government and State-owned enterprises as the employers on the one side and employees on the other.

A similar collapse in confidence and faith appears to have taken place between union leaders and the workers they supposedly represent.

It first started with the strike at the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation, and then came TransNamib, Namdeb, Agribank, Polytechnic of Namibia, Namibia Dairies and now the teachers. Nurses also seem poised to embark on strike action at any time. The workers have learnt a crucial industrial relations lesson from all this.

The lesson is that the only way to make Government listen to your concerns and attend to your problems is to down tools, take to the streets and start toy-toying.

War veterans did it, Children of the Struggle did it, NBC workers did it and they all successfully had their demands met. To paraphrase the late Idi Amin, they are also now going to ‘did it’.

The Children of the Struggle achieved success beyond anything they could have imagined in their wildest dreams.

Government has now permanently reserved all public service vacancies exclusively for them.

Government and the political establishment in general must carry the blame for this situation

Despite all its protestations to the contrary, there are those who no longer seem to believe that Government really has the genuine interests of workers and the broad masses at heart.

The lingering perception is that ministers, top public servants and union leaders are too preoccupied with their own little get-rich-quick schemes at the Tender Board or on the boards of parastatals to pay any attention to worker’s problems.

The teachers have been negotiating with Government about pay increments and other conditions of employment since around September last year.

From what one can see, Government has shown little sense of urgency when it comes to these negotiations.

Only now when fed up teachers finally resorted to taking strike action, ministers start behaving as though their trousers are on fire. That is brinkmanship taken to a dangerous extreme!

Unfortunately, Government has lost the moral high ground in labour relations and the days when people saw it as an honest broker in labour matters are long gone.

Government started out with good intentions when it formulated the 2007 Labour Act.

The Act aimed to usher in a new era of harmonious labour relations.

In this idyllic new world of industrial peace, conciliation and arbitration would replace confrontation and protracted, costly Labour Court cases – in contrast to the situation that prevailed under the 1992 Labour Act.

However, the ink had hardly dried on the document and Government had not even officially implemented the Act before it started to show its true colours.

That year exposed Government and its State-owned enterprises as the biggest, most blatant violators of worker’s rights with the mass-retrenchments at the National Housing Enterprise (NHE) and Agribank.

Five years later this has still not stopped. Only this year, the Namibia Airports Company carried out another mass-retrenchment exercise in flagrant violation of Government’s own legislation and labour policies.

When challenged on these clearly unfair labour practices, the stock answer Government gave was that the matters were sub judice and that it could therefore not intervene.

If a private company such Sanlam or the Pupkewitz Group decided to fire its entire workforce for no substantive reason – using the flimsy excuse of ‘restructuring’ – Government would have been the first to scream blue murder.

Sub judice or not, Government would not have hesitated to intervene, probably using some choice words to describe the management of the companies such as ‘apartheid-colonial mentality’.

Government has intervened in private sector labour disputes in the past and will continue to do so.

However, when it comes to its own companies its hands are seemingly always tied.

In the cases of NHE and Agribank it threw workers to the wolves because its own hand-picked political cronies run these companies.

The court cases of the retrenched had spent five years slowly meandering their way through the Labour Court

Then someone, somewhere quietly manoeuvred to kill the cases off so that the CEOs in question would never have to face the music.

Aided and abetted by the judicial system they removed Magistrate Leah Shaanika from the bench dealing a death blow to the court cases.

Is this what we call justice? Is this what we call a sound industrial relations mechanism?

The trade unions themselves now seem to have joined Government in perpetrating unfair labour practices against their own officials.

This week the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) summarily suspended its president Elia Manga and dismissed its general-secretary Evilastus Kaaronda.

It hardly even bothered with any pretence of having followed a fair and transparent procedure.

One somehow suspects that Manga’s suspension is a smokescreen to cover the long-held desire by some union officials to throw out Kaaronda.

The NUNW will no doubt reinstate Manga in good time while leaving Kaaronda to rot.

The point here is that Government and the unions cannot expect the private sector to adhere to good labour relations standards when they themselves blatantly violate good labour practices.

There can be no double-standard!

We can attribute much of the current labour unrest to the fact that workers have not only lost faith in Government but also their union leaders.

There is the sense that Government is not there to serve all, but only its own core constituency and that it is even prepared to sacrifice national interest in pursuit of favouring this constituency.

Members see union leaders as self-serving hacks that are in the pockets of politicians, and more concerned about their own political advancement and material gain than in protecting the interests of the workers.

It is also about time ministers familiarised themselves with the country’s Labour Act.

Some of the statements they made this week sound highly irresponsible and in some cases even nonsensical.

One minister claimed that Government would regard striking teachers as absent without leave (AWOL) while another claimed that Government would simply not pay teachers.

The fundamental principle that underlies our labour law is that employers must follow fair and transparent labour relations procedures.

Therefore, before starting to make wild statements, let’s follow the proper procedures as laid out in the Labour Act.


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The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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