22 September 2011

Namibia: Cost of Living Triggering Labour Unrest

Windhoek — Continuous increases in the cost of living, along with a widening gap between the poor and the rich is the fuel driving the spate of labour unrest sweeping across the country, affecting the different sectors of the Namibian economy.

An average wage for the Namibian worker is far less than the actual cost of living and compounded by labour unions' quest to always have leverage over managements, workers are resorting to strike action.

"I think you can link industrial disputes to economic conditions and that people find it more tough to survive on their pay cheque," commented economist Emil van Zyl.

Inflation figures for August show a continuous increase in price rates for food items and transport costs.

The rates are expected to increase in September due to increases in various household utilities going into effect.

These are expected to add additional pressure on household expenditure.

Secretary-General of the National Union of Namibia Workers (NUNW), Evilastus

Kaaronda feels "there is nothing strange" in the surge in industrial disputes.

"The 21 years of economic growth have not resulted in growth of wealth for the greater number of our people. Overtime, workers want to have what is rightfully theirs - a share in the country's wealth," he said.

Namibia is not the only country in this predicament. South Africa too is experiencing a surge in the number of industrial disputes and strikes.

Interestingly, the world over, the mining sector is experiencing industrial disputes, mostly involving the very same mining companies which at one point engaged in disputes in Namibia and South Africa - De Beers and Anglo America, with disputes reported in Asia and South America.

Nevertheless, Namibia's industrial disputes run across various industries, besides mining, from health care workers, to workers in retail and hospitality industries.

The country has just experienced a nearly month long industrial strike at Namdeb, the 50/50 joint venture diamond company between De Beers and the Namibian government, which resulted in N$124 million losses in production. Government is said to have lost an estimated N$118 million in taxes, royalties and shareholder dividend.

Although workers have returned to work, industrial relations at Namdeb remain shaky.

Then there is the current dispute at Rössing Uranium, with the possibility of turning into an industrial action, if ongoing mediation efforts collapse.

If it does happen it would be a second industrial strike at the mine, following a three-day strike in July that saw the company losing about N$23 million in production.

Several labour analysts attribute the problems in the mining industry to poor industrial relations between the unions and mine management.

"Once it starts getting momentum it spills over to more and more industries.

Although unions sometimes are in competition for membership they share a large number of common goals and will support each other to demonstrate their united power. We have now reached that point," said van Zyl.

Kaaronda said it was time for the government to step in and support workers' calls for equal distribution of the country's wealth.

"The strikes are all a result of greed of the capitalists, poverty, social injustice, and economic exclusion of the workers. Workers are fighting against the greed on the part of management and board members," he said, adding that remuneration for workers was little compared to what goes into the pockets of management and board members.

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