By Tileni Mongudhi
Mayday, mayday, Namibian workers make distress calls on May Day 2018
On May Day last year, a small group of workers marched to protest what they called were exploitative working conditions. The group mainly consisted of workers from Africa’s largest retail chain, Shoprite. The march was held in solidarity with over 120 of their colleagues, who back in 2015 dared to face the retail giant and demand a living wage. The workers, in 2015, downed tools after realising their union representatives were not bringing about the change they needed. In an act of desperation, the workers took matters into their own hands and went on a strike, which was later deemed unlawful. As a result, the company instituted disciplinary charges in a bid to dismiss all affected employees.
At last year’s march, trade unionist Herbert Jauch was alone, among the workers. With the exception of a handful of lawyers who committed to representing the affected workers for free against Shoprite. Jauch’s colleagues in the trade union fraternity were attending the official government-organised Workers’ Day celebrations.
In 2018, the official May Day celebrations will be in Khorixas, a town in the Kunene region of the country. Again, the workers will take the back seat and allow for the officialdom to take centre stage and no one is taking a hard stance or a critical look at the Namibian worker’s plight.
Jauch, who has been critical of the ‘meh’ state of trade unionism in modern-day Namibia, appears to be a lone voice in his attempts to push the workers’ agenda back into the public discourse. The veteran unionist published a book on the plight of the Namibian worker, this year. At the book launch, he was quoted as urging trade unions to stand up for the rights of contract and informal workers, who make up the majority of Namibian workers. He said employers were now moving towards employing contract or informal workers because they do not require formal employment contracts, which in turn will not compel such employers to ask for wages and benefits as prescribed by the labour laws of the country.
He said the labour movement was threatened by dwindling membership due to the increasingly casual nature of work and flexible forms of employment, as well as a trend towards the informal growth of the economy.
In the book, Jauch discloses the only about 164,000 workers in the country are unionised, which is almost 25 percent of the country’s workforce. Jauch at the launch made the claim that in an attempt to cut labour costs and curb trade unions’ influence, employers have resorted to temporary and casual work for low-skilled workers. The unionist’s observation is alarming and in itself enough to call Namibian trade unionists to action and rethink their role in 2018 Namibia. It is our concern that this practise will push Namibia back into the outlawed contract labour system. We long for the days when organised labour had a seat at the decision-making table. When organised labour could influence national policies, even if it meant going toe-to-toe with government and the political and economic elite in Namibia. It is a sad day to notice that organised labour has been relegated to the history books in Namibia and seemingly plays no part in the way Namibia is run, nor in influencing the legislative framework for the benefit of the working masses. The status quo has effectively given the likes of Shoprite Carte blanche to do as they please to the Namibian worker. We call upon the Namibian worker to remember Bob Marley’s words: “None but ourselves can free our minds.”