As the world prepares to celebrate International Workers’ Day tomorrow, labour rights experts have called on workers across the country to advocate for unity of purpose.
May Day, as the day is also known, is a celebration of the International Labour Movement, and 1 May is a national holiday in more than 80 countries around the world. May Day is also used to make a distress call via radio communications.
This year, May Day takes place amidst the biggest economic and social crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic wreaked havoc in Namibia’s labour sector.
The labour ministry’s executive director, Bro-Mathew Shinguadja, earlier this year announced that 12 198 workers from 896 companies lost their jobs in 2020.
To mitigate the fallout from the lockdowns announced to curb the spread of Covid-19, government instituted the once-off N$750 emergency income grant (EIG).
Approximately 800 000 people applied for the grant.
Speaking to New Era yesterday, Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) director Michael Akuupa said workers should be vocal about their situations and conditions at the workplace so that their rights are not exploited.
“Workers should advocate for unity of purpose as they deal with issues that pertain to their work and livelihoods, such as the national minimum wage that is under deliberation through the wage commission. Workers should also be prepared to give and take in their deliberations with their employers,” Akuupa urged.
Renowned labour researcher Herbert Jauch shared similar sentiments, saying May Day 2021 is a May Day of workers in crisis, not only in Namibia, but also in many other parts of the world.
“Therefore, it is very important for workers to form unity of purpose to face the challenges they face at workplaces, he added.
Akuupa said the current working environment is most challenging, given the pandemic that has befallen the world. Covid-19 has thus changed the rules of engagement for governments, business and employees alike.
These changes, he noted, have not been beneficial to all as they have brought the economy to an abrupt standstill with recovery at a snail’s pace.
“Namibia was not spared these challenges during this moment. We have observed businesses close, followed by an array of job losses. These losses continue to be experienced in all sectors of the economy. Sectors that require presence of employees so that they exist were the hardest hit. In construction and tourism, serious job losses were experienced,” he continued.
The informal economy workers and employers were equally affected.
“One year on since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, there is slow recovery in economic activities being observed. For instance, a lot of companies had to cut their employees’ salaries to half for them to sustain employment while observing economic growth,” Akuupa said.
Those companies which closed had begun to re-hire their employees on a short-term basis after some of them accessed the stimulus interventions that were offered by government through the Development Bank of Namibia (DBN).
Trade union relevance
Meanwhile, Akuupa believes trade unions are relevant, but they need to re-engineer themselves to adapt to current socio-economic conditions.
“They need to re-strategise so that they can counter new challenges. The days of traditional trade unionism are long gone,” he said.
“For example, Namibia’s labour force in 2018 was just above one million, with over 57% informally employed. In other words, it is no longer easy to organise workers by just going to the shop floor and to recruit”, he added.
Trade unions can also no longer rely on formal economic entities as a source of their membership base.
Jauch said the relevance of trade unions would be measured not only in terms of their ability to negotiate increases for their members, because that is certainly one aspect which is not enough.
“To remain relevant, trade unions will also have to show that they are able to find solutions to the structural economic question of our time. They need to be able to influence a change in direction, a change in policy approaches that will benefit workers and the working class in Namibia as a whole,” he stressed.
“It is my view that they will be measured against that ability to contribute to such fundamental transformative economic social changes, otherwise their relevance will be questioned,” he said.
Known as the iron lady in labour union circles, Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU), secretary general Justina Jonas is also of the opinion that trade unions will continue to be relevant for the next decade.
She said the only thing the unions must invest into is to ensure that young workers are educated about their rights at workplaces.
“Let the young workers be part of the union structures so that they assist unions to with the advancements in technology. The labour market is dominated by young workers, and we need to pay attention to their needs at workplaces. Unions should continue to educate their members and workers in general to understand their rights,” she said.
She added that unions need to build a bridge connecting the past to future generations so that the trade union ideology remains the same, with no compromise.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesperson Alfredo Hengari said over the past 31 years, government worked hard to ensure that the rights of workers are protected through the constitution.
“During this difficult period of Covid-19, I call on workers to hold hands with government as we rebuild our communities and economy. On this day, with Covid-19 in our midst, I wish to particularly single out the frontline workers who continue to work tirelessly to protect the health of our citizens,” he observed.