AS many as 80 per cent of workers who were employed through labour-hire companies suddenly found themselves without work on August 1 and now face long periods of insecurity instead of the job security promised when 'casual labour' was banned last week.
The newly amended Labour Act which outlaws labour hire has sparked major concerns of instability among businesses and labour-hire companies in Namibia, but even more so among those it is meant to directly advantage - the workers.
Workers who have found permanent employment sing the praises of the new legislation, but they are in the minority, while most of the casual workers have lost their jobs as labour-hire companies hurried to meet the demands of the new law by laying off workers.
Namibia's largest labour-hire company, Africa Personnel Services (APS), said since the new legislation came into effect last week, 75 per cent of the companies that hired workers through them have cancelled their contracts. This has led to major layoffs on the part of APS.
"Only 235 of our people have found permanent employment. We have had to unfortunately lay off 800 employees because our clients, which are the companies that made use of our temporary workers, could not offer them all permanent employment," said APS group financial director Robert de Villiers.
APS owner Ranga Haikali said the labour-hire industry has more than 10 000 casual workers, and will be forced to let go of over 7 000. He said his company faces imminent liquidation if an eleventh-hour court bid to stop the implementation of the new Act fails.
Labour-hire companies play the middleman role. They hire people off the streets, keep them on their books and send them to other business on a need-to-use basis.
The new law outlaws that middleman role and instead forces companies to hire the 'casual workers' directly as full-time employees with the same conditions as their permanent workers.
"The amended Act is too wide, is not clearly written, and does not have clear guidelines," said De Villiers. "Some of the companies, due to the nature of their work, can unfortunately not employ people permanently as they only need such people for a period of time. We are saying, don't outlaw labour hire, rather regulate it."
The mass layoffs appear to have caught even the proponents of the ban off guard. One such campaigner for the ban, trade union and labour law expert Herbert Jauch, feels the retrenchment of labour-hire workers IS "unnecessary and deliberate".
"If companies are already saying they cannot employ everyone permanently, then that's a clear indication that they have not explored all avenues to keep these workers, and this is a very destructive way of handling the law.
"This seems to me like a deliberate action by some of these companies to kind of punish these workers because of the new law. My suspicion is that some of these companies want to create the impression that the law creates unemployment so they make it look like government is to blame for amending it," Jauch charged.
In a written response another a labour-hire company, Edu Letu Consultants, informed The Namibian that it is applying for exemption in terms of section 128 (8) of the Labour Amendment Act (No. 11 of 2007).
That section of the Labour Act reads: "Where the Minister is satisfied that the rights of any employee in terms of this Act or any other employment law will be satisfactorily protected ... he or she may, on application made by a user enterprise and supported by both the private employment agency and the affected employee, exempt a user enterprise, in whole or in part...".
According to Edu Letu, "The private employment agency and the user enterprise are each deemed to be the employer of the individual placed with the user enterprise and are jointly and severally liable for the employee. We have our clients' full support with the exemption application."
By last week when the amended Act came into effect, some companies that use temporary workers, such as the Ohlthaver and List (O&L) group of companies, said it was "difficult at this stage" to say how many temporary workers they would employ.
O&L, which uses more than 1 000 temporary workers, also said it was going to be "business as usual as the Act allows for implementation process specifically with reference to the justification of employing people on a fixed-term contract".
The Ministry of Labour has not responded to questions by The Namibian about the effects of the ban of labour-hire companies on layoffs and the action it will take against those failing to comply.
The new legislation stipulates that when a company uses a casual worker, that worker becomes an employee of that company on the same terms and conditions as its permanent employees, unless the company can justify a fixed-term contract.
The APS application will be heard in the High Court on August 13.
Thirty-three-year-old Steven Uirab is one of the temporary workers laid off by APS. He worked for a printing company in Windhoek and has two children aged 11 and 12. They depend on his financial support. Being an only child, his unemployed mother is also financially dependent on him. His monthly rent in Katutura is N$300. Now unemployed as a result of the layoffs, Uirab says he has no idea how he is going to survive and take care of his dependants. Also in the same predicament is 35-year-old Jojo Jacobs, who worked for the same printing company for three years as a temporary worker.
"As much as we were not paid much, on the one side, it is good the labour-hire companies were there because they used to be our link to these companies and ensured we had work. What is to become of many of us if all labour-hire companies close and none of the companies want to give us permanent employment as per the new Act," he said. Many of the casual workers The Namibian spoke to, both those who have found permanent employment and those who have been laid off, were mainly concerned of the job losses that have arose since the amended Act came into effect. "Namibia already has an unemployment percentage of more than 50. With these layoffs, where are we headed?" one of the temporary workers remarked.