Labour disputes such as wage disputes and other benefits that are denied to most workers - contrary to top management - characterised Namibia’s labour economy.
Namibia has three labour federations which house various labour unions. Of these, the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), the largest federation in the country, has maintained its affiliation to Swapo since independence. This affiliation relationship generated heated debates both within and outside the federation.
The majority of NUNW affiliates argue that a continued affiliation to the ruling party would help the federation to influence policies from within.
On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the affiliation undermines the independence of the labour movement. It also is preventing prospects for trade union unity in Namibia.
The other two federations are rather independent federations in term of being affiliated to political parties.
However, some labour experts argue that these federations could never be independent because they would either enforce their political agenda or the agenda of their funders, who are most of the time from Western nations.
The question of relevancy when it comes to trade unions in Namibia has become a major concern on the lips of many Namibians, particularly whether the presence of such civic societies are a fallacy or hope for the Namibian workers. Some scholars arguably state that the NUNW is in fact a workers’ wing of the ruling party, although the NUNW and its affiliates have on several occasions been the most vocal critics of government policies.
There are challenges of taking on the government about critical issues that might affect the workers in Namibia. These issues would revolve around the notion of huge income inequalities, the slow process of land redistribution, education reform, and the self-enrichment by politicians and the elitist. Some workers perceive the NUNW as having loyalty and a strong emotional attachment to Swapo as a liberation movement due to their historical relationship.
The notion of compromise comes to the forefront, especially when they represent workers in the air-conditioned boardrooms. The recent NBC dispute is a clear example where workers were sold out by their representative union. Some trade unions affiliated to the NUNW are still adamant that although the unions’ demands for redistributive measures have been met, they still believe that a continued affiliation to the Swapo-led government will be the best vehicle for influencing broader socio-economic policies in favour of workers. However, this has proven to be impossible, considering that the Swapo-led government is forever pushing for the socio-economic goals and political goals of controlling the workforce in Namibia. It is charged that the NUNW could not act independently and play the role of a watchdog over government as long as it is linked to the ruling party.
Another challenge confronting the Namibian labour movement is the threat of a dwindling membership base due to the increasing casual nature of work, the increase in ‘flexible’ forms of employment, and a trend towards the informal growth of the economy.
This has proven to be difficult for some trade unions to hold on to the number of members who are affiliated to a particular union, especially the workers in the security and watchmen unions. In an attempt to cut labour costs and curb trade union influence, employers in various economic sectors such as retail, fishing, mining, hospitality and manufacturing resorted to temporary and casual work contracts for low-skilled workers.
This would need thorough research and policy amendments to get casual workers to be represented by trade union organisations, provided there is a contract in place and human rights abuses don’t take place in the work environment.
The law also requires a fair and valid reason as well as the following of fair procedures for any dismissal to be regarded as legally fair. Unfair dismissals can be reported to the Office of the Labour Commissioner, which has the power to order reinstatements or the payment of compensation.
Most labour disputes in Namibia arise out of terminations of employment, but the legal protection provided does not halt the trend of an increasing proportion of workers being in precarious forms of employment. This is certainly a worrying trend that undermines what is referred to as decent work. It is of paramount importance to ensure that unions build a dedicated team of activists and worker leaders who can develop effective strategies to counter the business-driven development agenda that now influences virtually all spheres of Namibian society.