Shoprite vs workers – a mixed bag of concerns

There are arguments on all sides of the gap in the labour conflict at Shoprite. The solution will not be easy, and each side will end up feeling aggrieved. But, a resolution must be found.

There is a need for clarification of ‘temporary’ worker. A part of the list of complaints by Nafau is that ‘temporary’ workers stay on staff for years as if they are permanent. They do the same jobs as ‘permanent’ employees. And yet, they have no benefits and no job security. There is a loophole being exploited.

The call for a boycott and demonstrations should yield the closing of that loophole. However, this may not mean what the union and temporary workers think. It could mean losing their jobs as other people are bought in as temps to do that same work.

And yet, in these days of high unemployment, there is a labour glut for low skilled jobs. Supply and demand dictate the salary level. The union should know that demanding an effective doubling of its members’ current salary cannot work for any business model.

Tactically, it is more difficult to establish a new income stream than to increase an existing one. The workers are demanding a transportation allowance, housing allowance, as well as a salary increase. The housing and transport allowances to not exist at Shoprite in those worker categories. The unions are demanding that they be established out of nowhere.

The demand for transportation allowances is archaic. Perhaps in 2021, it is time to phase out the patronizing syndrome of employers providing transport allowances. Workers are not school children needing to be dropped off and picked up. They are adults who must take full responsibility to get themselves to work and back home (except for outlying jobs).

The demand must be to increase salaries to a competitive living wage, that includes the average cost of transportation, rent, and living expenses and people can afford to pay for their own transportation choices.

Housing allowances to be paid are difficult to quantify. It is assumed that most of the ‘temporary’ workers live in tin shacks on government land with no services. The rents charged for back garden tin shacks are untaxed, unregulated and unspecified. Still, others live with relatives in spare rooms or crowd in small township houses, sleeping on floors. On what basis is N$450 monthly housing allowance set? These are likely the questions during the negotiations.

Has the union researched such a demand for a housing allowance? That can be quite the stumbling block in any negotiation.

There is no doubt that certain employers scored profits during the state of emergencies, lockdowns and other restrictions. Food stores such as Shoprite made their profits regardless of COVID-19. That profit should enable them to offer better salaries. Instead, those profits are already sent out of Namibia to the mother company in South Africa.

While Shoprite works via a local corporate owner managing the brand, it is a South African chain interest. They make their money on economies of scale over all of their branded outlets in the region. The decisions demanded by the union and its members cannot be taken in Namibia.

Organizing a boycott is a tool to pressure that profit margin. A successful boycott that drops revenues significantly enough to beg the comparison of paying higher wages vs the percentage of falling revenues (and brand damage).

But this is a close-run thing. A boycott could backfire. Outlets could be consolidated, causing permanent job losses. In the economic crisis that faces Namibia and the inability of the unions to offer financial support to its striking workers, those on the picket lines cannot remain out of work indefinitely. Shoprite knows this.
A financially stressed customer base will shop closer to home (no taxi costs) or lower prices. Boycotts are secondary. Shoprite knows this too.

Negotiations must ensure a salary increment for the workers. The job security that could come if the ‘temporary’ worker loophole is closed is a win. Employers should be put on notice that workers will not sit quietly while they rake in the profits. There must be methods to distribute profits on lesser levels with the workers that helped them earn it.

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