Trade unions want more seats on company boards

Ester Mbathera

Kavihuha Mahongora, the secretary general of the Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA), said that they should constitute the majority of board members in institutions where workers’ resources are directly involved.

Mahongora referred to entities such as the Social Security Commission, pension funds, and the National Training Authority (NTA).

He was responding to questions from the Windhoek Observer about the importance of trade union representation on the plethora of boards of directors.

“The workers must control the board, which determines their fate, look after the resources of the workers, and determine their future. But those boards that are there for commercial purposes – for us, we feel that in that case, the trade unions will compromise their members,” he said.

Currently, trade unions have three seats on the boards of the SCC and GIPF each of which is occupied by members of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), Namibia National Teachers Union (NANTU) and Namibia Public Workers Union (NAPWU).

The government also have the same number of seats on these boards.

The government appoints the chairpersons.

Mahongora is of the opinion that the government should have minimal representation on these boards because they have two roles: employers and regulators.

He accused trade unions affiliated with the ruling Swapo party of always sitting with the government when it comes to decision-making.

“If we had a neutral situation where trade unions are independent, the situation would be different. On critical boards where money is involved, you find that independent trade unions are kept out. They only bring in collaborators so that they can loot, steal, and manipulate policies properly,” he said.

He said TUCNA was only approached to provide a representative for the SSC board but could not do so because of the requirements.

“The ministry wrote to us saying they want us to give them Nama women from the fishing sector. Where do we find a Nama woman in the fishing sector? We decided not to give someone because they cannot dictate to us who to give,” he said.

The NUNW secretary general, Job Muniaro, agrees that worker representation on boards such as the SSC is not a conflict of interest.

“The SSC is workers’ money, and we don’t see how it can be wrong for workers to manage their own money. How do you want to have a fund that belongs to you and you have no say about it and you cannot be part of decision-making?” he questioned.

The Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU) has been advocating for representation on the Central Procurement Board of Namibia (CPBN) for years.

The union’s general secretary, Justina Jonas, says workers need representation on the CPBN board to especially keep an eye on tenders awarded in the construction industry.

“The Central Procurement Board’s issue is very sensitive to the livelihood of workers in this country, especially those employed by subcontractors providing services to the government through contracts,” Jonas said.

According to her, the construction industry is especially prone to these issues, where workers often face severe exploitation under the watch of the government itself.

“Many times you are seeing the same culprit employers who are not complying with the national labour laws; they keep on continuing to get tenders, and we are saying it’s not right. But if you have representation of workers on this board who really understand what is happening on the ground and who see a different approach to making sure that issues of bread and butter are addressed when you are awarding tenders to these individuals,” she said.

Jonas pointed out that during the debates on the Procurement Act, there were vocal demands for more robust measures to protect workers’ rights.

The legislation did introduce some undertakings, such as requiring tendering companies to commit to complying with collective agreements between MANWU and the Construction Industries Federation of Namibia (CIF) or any other industry-specific collective agreement.

However, Jonas argues that these measures are not enough.

“When it comes to monitoring and evaluating these tenders, this client, which is the government, when they go to these projects, there’s no monitoring to see whether labour matters, labour issues, or workers are exploited. They only look at the project. But if it can be incorporated into these standards through the centre procurement board, I tell you, we’ll see a different picture,” she said.

Labour expert Herbert Jauch supports union representation in these areas, highlighting that it is crucial for protecting and advocating for workers’ benefits.

“It makes sense for workers to have representation so that their interests can be raised there, especially with the Social Security Commission and the Employment Equity Commission. There, it makes sense because then they can just raise workers’ interest directly,” he said.

He pointed out the inherent conflict of interest that arises when union leaders are part of corporate boards, especially commercial companies.

According to him, people sitting on such boards operate in the interest of the company and receive the mandate based on the company’s interests.

Jauch explained that trying to balance mandates from both workers and a company is practically impossible due to their often conflicting interests.

“This whole idea of union investment and trade unions being on board of companies produces a kind of conflict of interest inherently. And that is the danger in terms of workers’ control over unions and accountability,” he said.

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