Labour researcher and educator Herbert Jauch says May Day should serve unions as a platform to redefine their role not only as representatives of formal sector workers but also as advocates for economic and social justice.
Workers 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.
Speaking to New Era, Jauch said Namibian workers like their counterparts around the world will have very little to celebrate on May Day this year.
“The coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions of livelihoods and economies on an unprecedented scale since the world wars. In the Namibian case, just like elsewhere in southern Africa, the situation is particularly serious because the pandemic has hit an economy and labour market that was characterised by massive inequalities and widespread unemployment,” he said.
This situation, he added, will worsen dramatically in the weeks and months to come and for trade unions this means they will have to engage on two fronts: Firstly to minimise retrenchments and loss of livelihoods in the short-term.
And secondly, he said, to develop comprehensive proposals for an economic restructuring after the pandemic to ensure a systematic redistribution in favour of workers and the poor and the creation of thousands of new jobs with a living wage.
“This is certainly a tall order but the time is now for the labour movement to spearhead such fundamental and transformative changes. Otherwise, the relevance of trade unions will be questioned even more in the years to come,” he said.
Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (Manwu) secretary general Justina Jonas-Emvula said the pandemic has changed workers’ working conditions overnight and left them with many challenges.
“When the state of emergency was declared, many workers were left wondering as many employers turned against workers on unhuman treatment. Workers are forced to go on unpaid leave, forced to use their annual leave days, forced to take negative leave and some were given notice of retrenchments,” she said.
She said that with all the malpractices by employers, the union is happy that the labour directives are gazetted and workers can take their employers to task for non-compliance with the directives.
“We are aware that employers are not happy about these directives. It is a pity that at a time the nation needs to unite we are divided as employees and employers who are actually the backbone of our economy,” she said.
She said the union launched the campaign, ‘Protect jobs, avoid retrenchments’ and they are happy that some employers are starting to engage them and employees to find amicable solutions to issues and save jobs.
“If the employers decide to continue challenging the labour directives, we will support government on this matter. Our May Day statement through our federation will further elaborate on our national issues affecting workers,” she said.
Namibia National Labour Organisation (Nanlo) leader Evilastus Kaaronda said the emergence of Covid-19 has brought to the fore the insatiable greed of corporations, which despite having enjoyed alarming profit margins were unwilling to keep their workers on full pay just because of a few weeks of slow business activity.
“Millions of workers across the world were retrenched while others were forced on unpaid leave. While corporations with the assistance of governments are tapping into the various economic stimulus packages, the workers are left to fend for themselves in finding their own ways of paying for their already hefty mortgages, rents, hire-purchases, loans, medical and other utility bills,” he said.
He said as if these were not enough, governments further went on to restart the school calendar for all children without making the necessary learning aids available, especially to children of the workers and the unemployed.
“Thousands of health workers have suffered direct exposure to this extremely infectious disease and have succumbed to it, leaving their children without parents and many more continue to face the same fate,” he said.
He said workers must find their strength to fight against inequality, exploitation and abuse in their unity and push back corporate greed. “The stimulus packages offered by governments and state institutions must not be directed to the benefit of corporations and politicians,” he said.
“We must as workers remind our governments that driving expensive German luxury cars and living like Hollywood stars in a country ravaged by poverty, inequality and economic ruin is not only unpatriotic but also stupid,” he said.
Kaaronda says this year’s May Day message must therefore also be directed to President Hage Geingob and his Cabinet that they have a duty to all Namibians and that their Hollywood lifestyles “are a disgrace to the working men and women of our country”.