Windhoek — In the wake of a series of wildcat teachers' strikes over wages and improved conditions of service, New Era journalist, Lorraine Kazondovi, spoke to Namibia National Teachers' Union (Nantu) Secretary General, Basilius Haingura.
The embattled Nantu leader spoke at length about the underlying issues that precipitated the seismic labour upheavals that have reverberated across the country.
Mr Basilius Haingura, how often did Nantu discuss the salary negotiations with the teachers prior to the signing of the 8 percent across-the-board increase?
"Prior to negotiations, Nantu normally sends letters to the regions requesting members to provide input on what we present to government. On January 26 this year, we sent a letter to the regions to ask them about what to present to the government. We called a National Teachers' Council (NTC), which is the highest decision-making body, and we summarised their submissions, which we forwarded to the Office of the Prime Minister. During the negotiation process, you observe if matters are getting out of the mandate and then you approach the members through the structures to inform them of what you are confronted with and ask for advice before you continue with negotiations. In this case, the framework of the negotiations was within the mandate and there was no need to come back to the members. The members requested an inflation adjustment and for us to focus on fringe benefits and that is what we did. There may be a misunderstanding on the negotiation process among the teachers and Nantu members."
It appears that some of the teachers are not happy with this increase, why is this so? And will Nantu renegotiate with government for the extra 32 percent the teachers are demanding?
"There is a lack of participation by Nantu members in union activities. We solicited the mandate for negotiations from the regions and discussed the issues with all relevant members, except for the Khomas Region. As long as members ignore us, they will not know what's going on. As a result, some woke up in October to come up with a 40 percent demand. You cannot expect the negotiating team to withdraw the first submission (submitted in February 2012) and put this one in. And we cannot renegotiate, because the financial year is already concluded. They can wait for the next round of negotiations, which would be during the 2016/2017 financial year (FY). The package concluded is divided into three financial years. During the 2012/2013 FY we agreed on an 8 percent salary increase, as well as the increase in the housing subsidy, transport and medical aid. In the 2013/2014 FY, the job evaluation and regrading will be implemented as of April 01, 2013 and this would mean an automatic improvement in salaries. In the 2014/2015 FY we agreed on a salary adjustment of 10 percent as of April 01, 2014."
There are claims that union bosses are siding with government for reasons of political expediency at the expense of the struggling teachers? Are these allegations true?
"I am not a Nantu employee, but a Nantu member. Government through congress seconded me. During congress, the members took resolutions, which we as leaders are obliged to implement, unless I am proven wrong and that what I am doing is in contrast to the resolutions. By virtue of being an elected member as the secretary general, I am expected to be the head of administration of the union and that is why I was seconded to Nantu. I dismiss these claims."
It appears Nantu has lost its popularity to rival unions such as TUN, which is affiliated to Tucna, what is Nantu doing to remedy this state of affairs?
"Your question does not hold any water. We are not losing popularity. Our members know what we are doing. We offer services to members and that is how they buy into our services. It is not true that we are losing to TUN. TUN is the one that instigated the teachers to go into an illegal strike to claim popularity."
Some teachers in the Kavango Region are requesting an urgent special Nantu congress to have you removed as secretary general. Why is this so, and what is your response?
"In terms of the Nantu constitution, to hold a special national congress it must be an emergency congress with the jurisdiction and powers of the national congress of Nantu, which may be convened by the National Teachers' Council on the request of a third of the regions. Those who are demanding a congress don't know what they are talking about. The regional structures did not receive this request. It should be clear that we are not in support of the division of the Nantu membership. We learned during the illegal strike that it was organised in different ways to try to divide the people."
Do you believe Nantu lobbied adequately on behalf of the teachers during the salary negotiations with government? In other words did you negotiate in good faith?
"We normally advocate in good faith and advocate in the best interest of teachers. Unfortunately this year, the Nantu negotiating team was in an awkward position, because the teachers went on strike while the negotiations were ongoing. In itself, the teachers could regard it that Nantu was negotiating in bad faith, but we remained focused and delivered what we could."
Why are some teachers still disgruntled with the 8 percent increase?
"Members are only criticising the 8 percent increase without looking at the whole package. They must also compare that with what they submitted for the inflation adjustment, which was 6.7 percent at the time. Members should be more actively involved in union activities to know what is happening. We believe in collective decisions and made a collective submission. We negotiated accordingly."
Is Nantu a true representative of the majority of teachers in the country? If so, how many members does Nantu represent? And from your information how many teachers are represented by TUN?
"Nantu represents the majority of teachers in the country. A total of 15 200 teachers out of about 24 000 teachers in the country are Nantu members. The rest are TUN members and some belong to none. We want to recruit them to come to Nantu. If anyone doubts the membership of Nantu, they can consult the office of the Labour Commissioner."
The strike continues in some schools and regions in the country. What was the impact on educational activities over the past three weeks in terms of exams and lessons for learners? Is there any arrangement in place to allow learners to have extra classes or make up for missed exams to ensure their promotion to the next grade?
"I am not in the position to answer that, however Nantu is concerned about the impact the illegal strike may have had on the work lost by the learners. I do not know how they will recover this. However, I advise people to redouble their efforts to assist the learners to recover the lost work as much as possible."
In your opinion, do you think that teachers are being fair and within their rights to demand better salaries and fringe benefits? In terms of the cost of living and rising inflation, do you think that teachers are faring well when compared to teachers in, let us say, South Africa or Botswana?
"Yes, they have the right to demand, but it should be in line with the economy of he country. Our colleagues in South Africa are highly paid in comparison to teachers here, because their economy is bigger. However, there is not much difference from our colleagues in Botswana."
During the negotiations what percentages did teachers ask you to negotiate on their behalf with the government negotiating team and what were the figures that you presented to government before you agreed on the 8 percent salary increase?
"We were mandated to negotiate according to the inflation adjustment and to focus on the fringe benefits. That is what we submitted and the teachers have to appreciate that it was pushed up to 8 percent. We went beyond their mandate but now they are criticising us."
What figures did you have in mind on the housing allowance?
"We looked at the previous housing subsidy and only few people could participate due to the issue of affordability. We therefore requested the employer to meet the employees halfway and to increase the qualifying amount from N$450 000 to N$720 000 for someone earning N$240 000 per year. Staff members would contribute 34 percent and the employee 66 percent. In terms of our bargaining, the majority of teachers would now qualify for (a house of) N$630 000 up to N$720 000."
Why are teachers saying there has been a breakdown in communication with Nantu as their recognised bargaining agent? And what are you intending to do in future to avoid perceptions of a breakdown in communication with the teachers that you represent?
"It is easy to accuse the leaders and say they are not doing their work. The constitution made provision for how many times the National Executive Committee and the National Teachers' Council should meet. Through this, we are also expecting the lower structures (including the regions up to school committees) to do the same. What is happening now is that you call a meeting and very few people will turn up. At the same time, these people are the ones accusing the leaders of not doing their job. We view all members in all structures of Nantu as equally important and once you are active in attending activities, you will not be left behind."
Is there any other information that you would like to share with teachers?
"Yes. The secretary general is not the only person running the union. He only implements what the structures decide upon. Therefore, the moment Nantu members and non-members join Nantu and are actively involved in union activities, they will realise that Nantu leaders are trying their level best to deliver services. They will also understand how to channel their grievances. My personal opinion is that the leadership should also start actively to educate our members on how the union operates."