International Workers’ Day is a cliché

May 1st is a holiday on automatic. With the theme of: ‘Workers United in Ensuring Productivity for National Economic Growth and Guarding Against Unfair Labour Practices in the World of Work,’ it is no wonder that International Workers’ Day is not taken seriously. Whoever heard of a 19-word title that is so convoluted and cobbled together that it is meaningless?

The holiday for workers is no longer an empowering call to arms for workers to unite around co-ownership of the means of production, profit sharing, better and safer working conditions, and labour union representation in all workshops and factories. Instead, it has downward morphed into sound bite time for leaders to make uninspiring speeches to sparsely attended audiences about the history of labour unions helping to win the liberation struggle three decades ago and drone on about employment problems in Namibia.

The unemployment rate in Namibia in 2021 was nearly 22 percent, and youth unemployment is likely double that amount. Nothing is more miserable to consider alongside International Workers’ Day than what occurred some days ago as thousands of late applicants for limited police job openings swarmed the NamPol station in Wanaheda. And yet, here we are.

Namibia’s labour laws make it extraordinarily difficult to manage non-productive employees or consolidate labour costs, so employers are reluctant to take the plunge and create new jobs. With memories of COVID business failures, job losses, and salary cuts still painfully raw, recorded speeches on Workers’ Day about solutions to this problem were non-existent.

Namibian workers are unrealistic and spoiled in many ways, and this must change. Most still expect to be ‘given’ a job rather than earning one. Once employed, they do as they wish and expect to have that job for life. Their work ethic is questionable.

A considerable number of employers are still up to their money-grubbing ways. They pay as little as possible and expect top-tier outputs from exploited and apathetic workers. An ‘old boys’ network still pervades white-owned businesses in the private sector, where hiring black workers for command-and-control posts is still rare. Job training and skills improvement programs for small to medium private sector businesses are as mythical as Camelot. To be fair, such programs are expensive. The recipients will often receive the skills upgrade and leave for greener employment pastures as soon as possible. This article can be filled with descriptions of the labour problem in Namibia and be as mundane as the speeches given on Workers’ Day.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is: where are the answers? Those on the podiums standing before the people and media must stop repeating the problem or listing the symptoms and start talking about a cure.

Let’s get busy. What is the labour ministry doing besides holding court and calling employers about paying overdue wages? Are ministry officials desk-bound, or do they spend more of their work year in the field, talking to workers of all categories across the country? What law changes would improve the working lives of the people? Or do we have officials anxiously awaiting the next international trade union summit for a junket that offers freebies and hard currency per diems?

Namibia’s labour unions know they are irrelevant in 2023. They remind us of an aging Muhammad Ali dragging out his battered, overweight body and iconic reputation to fight a toothless nobody named Leon Spinks and losing. Ali’s hundreds of millions of boxing fans could only look away in shame. He was living on the memories of the fights that made him The Greatest of days long past. The unions that worked alongside SWAPO inside and outside the country during the Struggle are gone forever. For the most part, what exists now is only an alphabet soup name on out-of-date, static, or non-existent websites.

Let us not shame the old unions and the heroes that led them by dredging up mantras about the value of trade unions 30 years ago. Instead, the few organized workers who still care should rise up and incessantly demand that their unions receive annual NGO, government, member, and private sector financing to recruit talent, improve facilities, and travel around the country constantly to rebuild and tackle the problems of workers today.

Namibian trade unions seem to come out to play only when the issue of salary increase is on the table. They do not organize, agitate, or lobby for job creation or skills upgrades for their lowest-paid members. Arguably, many union leaders are wannabe managers in their industry areas or are silent deputy ministers in waiting. Like Ali falling to Spinks, this is a shame. They have lost their focus.

Union leaders should be a hammer that hits the anvil of the public conscience, the private sector’s profit lines, and the Parliament’s legislative imperatives. They must remind errant employers, underperforming employees, and lackadaisical government officials that workers are Namibia’s most valuable resource; nothing moves in the country without them.

All International Workers’ Day speeches must list how workers are better off today than yesterday. On May 1st, 2024, we must hear about Namibia’s innovative and relevant labour achievements and stop clapping for the tiresome, empty words that disappointed listeners on May 1st, 2023.

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