Are unions still relevant in the country?

Martin Endjala

The recent events of exploitation of workers by employers and the downing of tools by workers has put workers unions on the spot, with many questioning the relevance of unions. Many claim that unions are absent of and no longer represent workers fairly.

Unions are now under immense pressure to up their game or risk losing members as some feel that it is pointless to belong to a union and not benefit.

Kalimbo Iipumbu, Vice President of the Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF) said today that unions are useless, in that they are only pocketing money from workers.

“We are saying, enough is enough with these useless unions that are only pocketing money from their affiliated parties at the expense of its members as members continue paying for membership fees. We are calling for employees to terminate their contracts with them and cut their losses because it is no use”, Iipumbu said in an interview.

Recently, Namibia has seen a rise in employee strikes and protests, for better wages, racism, and exploitation amongst others.

Last month, Shoprite employees at Walvis Bay took to the streets to demand for better working conditions. A number of these workers were suspended as they reportedly participated in an illegal protest.

The Namibia Food and Allied Workers Union (Nafau) subsequently refused to represent the workers, saying they (workers) participated in an illegal strike, which is against striking rules.

NEFF activists two weeks ago joined City of Windhoek contract workers who downed tools and demanded that they be permanently employed. Craft Bistro workers and riverside service station earlier this year and unions were nowhere to be seen.

Iipumbu stressed that they as a party, which he claims has the interests of people at the heart saw it fitting to step in to support workers for better lives, given the ineffectiveness of unions.

“Why should workers suffer in silence while they have unions? Unions’ affiliations to parties are a huge concern, as they only operate according to their regime administrators and not by the workers’ demands. The Labour Minister Utoni Nujoma’s lack of appetite to tackle labour issues is unacceptable and he needs to start seriously putting the plight of Namibian workers first before his party. Even if you are from a certain party when you are representing workers and their rights, you must forget about your affiliation and do the job that you were elected to do”, stressed Iipumbu.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Union Secretary General Matheus Haakuria says he sympathizes with workers who are suffering at their workplaces as a result of not belonging to a union.

He says that the increase of strikes could be attributed to the fact that a majority of workers in the country do not belong to unions.

He also added that unions are labeled useless because they do not expose the work they are doing.

“Unions are very much effective. It is just that their work is not publicly exposed on social media and perhaps this is another aspect. As unionists we need to start really tapping into the scene to eradicate some of the wrong perceptions”, said haakuria.

Furthermore, he stated that one of the reasons why unions do not intervene in certain matters is that they have to conduct themselves within the ambits of the labour law hence, the “negative” perceptions.

However, he has cautioned Namibian workers that the issue of workers is often politicized as some political parties have found loopholes to echo their agendas. Despite this, he has lauded the noticeable efforts made by the political parties’ interventions to help workers.

The Swapo Party Youth League in the Rundu constituency intervened in a situation where workers and employers at a service station allegedly beat each other for fun, and in exchange for loans, from their employer.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Secretary General of the Mine and workers Union, Paulus Situmba, echoed similar sentiments, with an emphasis that unions need to be more visible and restructure themselves to better serve their members.

He also defended unions saying that the notion that unions are not relevant is wrong, as unions have done a lot of work that is not documented, and he underlined that perhaps it’s high time that they start doing so.

Moreover, he said workers are also said to have been misled by activists, and lawyers in believing that unions are useless.

Jacob Penda, the Secretary General of Nafau said that the unions are still relevant. He says that in their discussions, they have sensitised its members to always adhere to labour laws and not to embark on illegal strikes, as it is hard for unions to step in when action is taken against workers.

“We managed to get our 50+ majority in Shoprite, and negotiated better wages and positions for those who did not, so the unions are doing exceptionally well, it is just not well documented”, says Penda.

Popular Democratic Movement Member of Parliament, Nico Smit said Trade unions, by, design and definition need to represent workers.

“It takes will, a specialised skill set and a very specific framework within which to function, to be able to well represent workers. The human body is complex, carries out thousands of distinct yet overlapping, interrelated and interdependent functions efficiently. We can see it as an analogy for an advanced society. The eye needs to do what it’s been designed to do. The neck needs to do what it’s been designed to do. The one informs the other, but neither performs the function of the other – trade unions and political parties can learn from this,” Smit said.

He also took a jab at unions, saying that they are more interested in financial gain and collecting membership fees, than meaningfully representing workers in labour matters.

As a result, political parties, whose mandates also speaks to representation, feel obliged to get involved in labour matters, but sometimes lack the correct skills and labour knowledge which can create additional problems, he stressed.

According to Smit, people are losing trust and confidence in political parties and in trade unions alike.

“We need to make a greater concerted effort to ensure Namibians, and workers know their rights and understand the frameworks in which those entrusted to represent them operate.

Trade unions are of immense importance, it is unfortunate that public perceptions of the impact and capability are suffering- either due to lack of sufficient membership, lack of will, or a combination of the two. If we all do, to the best of our abilities, with earnest motives, that which we are mandated to do, we can mitigate some of the problems we’re seeing now”. He added.

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