Over the years, there have been concerns over Chinese labour practices in Namibia, often viewed as unfair, with various cases reported of poor and harsh working conditions across the country. Many view this as a concern where government and labour unions have more work to do to ensure workers are protected.
A general work visa allows a foreign national to work and reside in Namibia for a specific employer in any position that, in theory, cannot be filled by a Namibian citizen or permanent resident. The employer must show that no suitably qualified local candidates could be found to fill the position.
The plights of some Namibian workers under Chinese employers bring into focus the poor and non-implemented labour laws that exist in Namibia. New Era engaged labour experts on the issue, especially in the wake of the latest incident of Cheetah Cement allegedly employing Chinese foreign nationals without work permits to do manual labour such as cleaning. This practice is not permitted by the Namibian labour law, which stipulates such jobs are reserved for locals.
Labour Researcher Herbert Jauch contended the provisions of the Labour Act regarding workers’ rights cannot be left to voluntary acceptance by employers.
“The frequent violation of workers’ rights at both foreign and local companies shows that our system of enforcement is weak and that neither the formal provisions of dispute resolution through the office of the labour commissioner nor the work of trade unions have ensured adherence to workers’ rights. Unless state institutions and workers’ self-organisation in the form of trade unions is improved, several provisions of the Labour Act will continue to be violated,” Jauch stressed.
There are also many other incidences of Namibian employers abusing power and practising unfair labour practices against fellow Namibians. Jauch concurred that this is very true, and against a background of mass unemployment, workers are scared of victimisation and retrenchments.
“This is why a collective response is needed in the form of strong workers’ organisations, especially trade unions. Individually, workers cannot confront the abuses they may suffer at the hands of their employers and therefore strong self-organisation is essential to defend workers’ rights and interests,” said Jauch.
In addition, he said the ministry of labour and its agencies must be geared toward protecting workers against victimisation by being able to act swiftly and decisively against those who victimise workers.
Director of the Labour
Resource and Research Institute (LARRi) Michael Akuupa argued enforcement of the Labour Act will be cumbersome if workers are not organised.
Generally, he says there is a lack of worker representation at various Chinese companies.
“Who will take up an issue of concern if there is no worker representation? The one person that does it may end up being victimised in the process. Thus, we observe political entities and movements enter this space to represent their members. So worker organisations are supposed to be the first point of the Labour Act enforcement that should only escalate to inspectorate should it become complex to deal with. Abuse should never be condoned and once it surfaces, it must be dealt with immediately,” Akuupa noted.
He advised the government to work together with trade unions in the tripartite-plus structure to engage their Chinese counterparts under the “Belt and Road Initiative Priority 5 People to People Bonds” so that their companies are oriented correctly to the local operational framework.
In 2013, former President Hifikepunye Pohamba condemned Chinese nationals who relieve themselves in plastic shopping bags and then order their Namibian workers to discard the bags of faeces and urine in public refuse bins.
At the time, a Chinese supervisor at Otjiwarongo in the Otjozondjupa region was accused of relieving herself in a plastic bag and instructing a junior staff member, a Namibian, to dispose of the excrement in a rubbish bin outside the shop in the central business district.
Akuupa is worried cases of reported abuse have escalated especially by foreign nationals and it is only correct that agencies tasked for such do their jobs correctly.
Hence, he suggests it is important to profile the types of abuse so that corrective measures are taken.
“If Namibian employers practice unfair labour practices to fellow Namibians, they too should be dealt with similarly. The Labour Act is not discriminatory, it is applicable to all local and international companies. In turn, workers should be organised in order to prevent victimisation. Trade unions should also organise workers across the spectrum and assist their members effectively,” Akuupa advised.
With high unemployment rising up to 47% among youth – competition for jobs has spawned resentment among some jobless Namibians.
Asked whether Namibia would experience xenophobic protests that morph into violence if the situation is not addressed, Jauch said this is very likely to happen although the root cause of the widespread unemployment is not the employment of foreign nationals.
According to him, the structural failure of the Namibian economy and failed interventions over the years to create tens of thousands of new jobs have resulted in a dire situation for many Namibians. “This frustration can be directed towards foreign nationals as we have seen for example in South Africa in recent years,” he reasoned.
Meanwhile, Akuupa said the youth are desperate and have been patient for a long time, but he does not think that Namibians will unleash xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals as long as there is an indication that something is being done. “This is supposed to be observed in the national budget, public procurement, access to credit facilities, and training. For instance, we have seen deliberate mention made of youth participation in envisaged public projects. Such should materialise and not through word of mouth only.”
Meanwhile, Jauch claimed Namibia’s socio-economic crisis is worsening overall and this cannot just be attributed to foreign nationals.
Instead, he said there is a need to focus on changing the structure of the economy, including local manufacturing and beneficiation as well as moving towards a living wage. “The current wage levels lock the majority of workers into poverty. Many potential interventions have not taken place and we now pay the price. Anger might be directed towards foreigners as has happened in South Africa but it is important to look at the bigger picture of unemployment, poverty, and inequality and how this can be redressed.”