Windhoek — New Era journalist Lorraine Kazondovi spoke to seasoned trade unionist and labour expert, Cuana Angula, to analyse the possible causes of labour unrest in the country.
Mr Cuana Angula, you have been out of the country for sometime. Welcome back to the land of the brave. If I am correct you left organised labour for the Global Union Federation (GUF) for a period of almost 10 years. You are now back in the country at a time when unprecedented strikes are rocking the economy. Having worked both for the trade unions and the GUF, what is your opinion on the ongoing industrial disputes taking place in Namibia and neighbouring countries?
"Strikes occur seasonally in South Africa due to the fact that trade unions engage in bargaining every two years. Trade unions are engaged in collective bargaining as seen with the public servants and the recent transport industry strike. In Namibia, it is a new phenomenon, because before it was not as intensive or did not receive much media coverage. One major strike in Namibia in 1971 or 1972 was influenced by dockworkers in South Africa. The then leaders took up the issue of the contract system and the strike spread to Namibia. Since that time, the situation in Namibia tends to be the same, in that if South African workers strike it has a bearing on Namibia. Some strikes in Namibia are linked to those of South Africa and some South African strikes spill over into Namibia. Some strikes also have an economic impact on Namibia such as the recent transport strike, which resulted in a shortage of food in the country. Some companies in the country are also subsidiaries of South African companies."
There are murmurs among workers on trade union negotiators' tendency to negotiate 'salary increments across the board' from management to the lower ranking staff. Is there no other means of negotiating for increments targeting workers who are hard hit by the high costs of living?
"There are other means to negotiate salary increments. You could propose a higher percentage for the lower paid and a lower percentage for the higher paid. You could also propose a salary adjustment for the lower paid workers to meet the living wage. In the past, we fought for living wages to meet basic needs, which is about N$5 000 per month and is adjusted every year. There is a difference between minimum wage and a living wage. Minimum wages are determined by statutory regulation or the organisation. The living wage is determined by union members to meet their basic needs. No one in Windhoek can live on a gross salary below N$5 000."
Are across-the-board negotiations not contributing to widening the gap between the rich and the poor? I ask this, because such increments give more to the managers and even less to the working class.
"Yes it does contribute. The public servants concluded an 8 percent (wage) agreement across the board. The Secretary to Cabinet is also part of the bargaining unit, which NAPWU is bargaining for including a cleaner in the government. The Secretary to Cabinet earns about N$100 000 per month, which is about N$1.2 million per year, however a cleaner earns about N$2 000 per month, which is about N$24 000 per year. If you look at the two, you will see that the Secretary to Cabinet will get an N$8 000 monthly increment compared to the cleaner who will get a N$160 monthly increase. Is this fair? This is the situation of imbalances that we face in Namibia. There is a problem with across-the-board increases, because workers do not understand them. We do not explain to the workers, that is why the teachers demanded a 40 percent increase to get a better deal. There are huge gaps between the high and low earner in Namibia and South Africa, and it is difficult to close this gap unless you link increments to salary adjustments for the low earners to contain the growing gap. However, the employers argue that they have to maintain skills. These are the realities that trade unions are confronted with. We need to be open in negotiations and address the conflict between the two parties. Trade unions look at the interests of the workers, while the employers are profit-driven. You cannot address the situation if conflicting parties have different views on how to close the gap."
You have been a senior trade unionist within the NUNW. Do you agree with public perception that affiliated trade unions tend to compromise their members because of their close ties with the Swapo Party?
"No, because Swapo established the NUNW. At a consolidation congress in 1989, members of the affiliated unions voted in favour of affiliation to Swapo. And every year, congress reaffirms affiliation to Swapo. For me these are not public perceptions, but individual perceptions because the general members on the ground will tell you that Swapo is their political home and the majority of them want to be linked to Swapo. The trade union movement of the United States of America gave US$5 billion to the Obama campaign and pledged their support to Obama. The same is true for France and Brazil. There is always a link between trade unions and political parties. Any union wants to secure a political home for its members, just as South Africa's Cosatu is in alliance with the ANC. There has been an agreement with Swapo and NUNW since Bernhard Esau was secretary general of NUNW from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. At the time, Swapo's secretary general was the late Moses Garoëb and a political accord was signed which governs relations between NUNW and Swapo. I do not agree with perceptions portrayed by individuals."
What is your opinion on affiliated unions versus independent trade unions in advancing the interests of their members?
"The so-called independent unions portray a certain political view. Their leaders make political statements, but claim to be independent. NUNW will maintain autonomy and run its affairs without interference from Swapo. Certain unions, which are called sweetheart unions, are paid by employers and have to dance to their tunes. People do not look at the role of so-called independent unions. They do not look at things from both sides. One way or another, you have to make a political decision. Even newspapers portray a political view, but they claim to be independent. Just look at their editorials."
The Office of the Labour Commissioner has commented on the lack of honesty, sincerity, openness and negotiation skills among trade union negotiators and employers when negotiating wages and benefits. In fact, the Labour Commissioner is providing training to both employers and trade unions to negotiate openly, instead of always ending in a tussle over whether or not the employer has money to effect an increase. Do you share these sentiments?
"The Office of the Labour Commissioner is the custodian of collective bargaining. The Labour Act gives powers to the trade union movement to request the disclosure of information. The Labour Commissioner can use this information for fair and open negotiations if both parties are being fair and open. Unions act on available information. They can obtain annual reports of the company and analyse the information based on that to enter into negotiations. However, an employer could say that the report is meant for shareholders. There are reports for the shareholder, the trade unions and for income revenue. All of us are cheating on income revenue and not portraying the real situation. Most of the parastatals claim bankruptcy and request bailouts, but if you look at the remuneration of senior management, they curb increases for executives, but propose incentives or bonus awards no matter how badly the company is doing. We have seen how executives pay themselves huge bonuses while the company is becoming bankrupt."
What would be your advice to employers, trade unions and employees on measures that mitigate industrial disputes?
"They should uphold the spirit of the Labour Act, you cannot sidestep the Labour Act. Collective bargaining is a voluntary process to reconcile conflicting interests and aspirations. We need an indaba to address the labour situation and discontent in the country. Unrest is when people use traditional weapons such as in South Africa when people strike with kieries, pangas and sticks. The correct term for Namibia is discontent, because people are portraying their unhappiness with posters and no weapons. Let us call a national meeting on collective bargaining and review the Labour Act if needed."
Does the state have a role to play in containing labour unrest or should this task be left solely in the hands of trade unions and employers? We have witnessed a number of labour disputes resolved through State House and intervention from Cabinet ministers.
"In terms of the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention, the state is a regulatory institution and should be involved in collective bargaining to maintain law and order. The Office of the Labour Commissioner was established through the Ministry of Labour. If a matter is of national interest, the president can intervene. Some ministers intervene, because they are experienced trade unionists. The state also has a role to play as the mediator between conflicting parties, because the economy may be affected by a loss of production and a loss of income and therefore no revenue for the state."
As an experienced trade unionist and labour expert, are the ongoing industrial disputes a cause for concern?
"Yes, in the long run it could get out of hand and stoke civil disobedience in the country. Certain people ignore court orders, which are supposed to maintain law and order. If we ignore one branch of the state (between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary), it will have an impact on the rest. You have the right to strike, but there are limitations. You cannot go on strike and ignore the Labour Act. This will create anarchy and lawlessness. It will also have an impact on the global competitiveness of the economy, because investors look at labour/industrial conditions before they invest. Local investors would also not invest their money if there's uncontrolled labour unrest going on. The police need to be trained on how to enforce court orders to avoid situations such as Marikana."
Are we likely to see serious disruptions in production, a slowing of the economy and perhaps even political uncertainty?
"I do not think so, because these are seasonal situations. Things will come back to normal, because collective bargaining happens at intervals. It will be calm until the next bargaining season in 12 months or two years. I urge State House to call an indaba to bring all leaders, trade unions and employers together to pave the way forward and establish the real causes of the current labour unrest and put forward recommendations. The ILO will assist if approached by government."
Any other comments/information you would like to share with us?
"Trade unions should go back to the drawing board to see where they went wrong and consult with their members regularly. Employers and employees through their trade unions also need to go back and see where they went wrong. Companies that have gone through strikes should organize peace obligations to address the situation and rebuild relations between the employer and employees, preferably on neutral ground. The peace obligation should preclude retaliation following a strike, such as disciplinary hearings and action against the teachers, for example. The employer and employees should forget and address the problem that brought them to that stage with the help of independent experts, who can analyse and rebuild their relations."