The Namibian (Windhoek)

18 December 2012

Namibia: Ministry Fails Grape Farm Workers

A GROUP of disgruntled retrenched workers at the Orange River Irrigation Project (ORIP) claim that the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry is employing white people and foreign nationals at the project instead of empowering black Namibians trained and experienced in grape production.

They further claimed that the ministry was well aware of a myriad of claims of unfair labour practices at ORIP between 2006 to 2012, but that the ministry had failed to act on any of the complaints.

The ORIP project, run by the Namibia Development Corporation (NDC) on behalf of the ministry, was operated by service provider Grape Smart until the end of June 2009.

The Dutch company Cool Fresh was to take over the operations, but South African company Capespan served as the new service provider on a temporary basis.

Just before Grape Smart took over the operations in 2006, the NDC gave notice to all permanent staff that they would be retrenched.

In September that year, the staff requested that the NDC and the agriculture ministry give staff written guarantees that after their retrenchment, they would enjoy job security after ORIP operations had been transferred to the privately owned service provider.

According to the retrenched workers, the NDC gave a verbal promise that their jobs would be secure.

The NDC had informed workers that since Cabinet had instructed it to close all its 100 percent-owned subsidiaries, it was "compelled" to close the Aussenkehr project and give notice to all workers.

It stated that all employees would be offered employment on new terms and conditions under the new service provider.

The NDC further told employees that they "may" immediately take up employment with the new service provider from October 2006.

The staff informed the NDC that they would transfer over to Grape Smart after December 2006, which took over the operations on January 1, 2007 until a tendering process would be completed for a new service provider.

However, the workers claimed Grape Smart went back on previous pledges, and refused to take on board the staff, who insisted that their job security had been compromised since Grape Smart insisted that all previous staff be "screened" before reappointment.

The former workers said those taken on board had since the middle of 2007 been receiving late payments of their salaries, or only paid half their salaries.

Following discord between the staff and the service providers, the workers said, they were branded as "troublemakers".

In November 2007, 32 staff members claimed unfair labour practices by Grape Smart, and in December that year, Daniel Goosen of Grape Smart informed a manager that he would receive his last payment without there having been any disciplinary action taken against the said worker.

The Agriculture Ministry ended the management agreement with Grape Smart in July 2009, which reportedly was merely a verbal agreement.

Former workers now charge that it was common knowledge that Grape Smart had misappropriated funds from Government meant to cover costs such as the payment of electricity.

They said Grape Smart had similarly misappropriated funds from grape sales as well as money paid by small farmers on the project for their accounts with Agribank.

Ten of these small-scale grape growers have since been evicted from their plots for not repaying a N$1,2 million loan from Agribank.

In October 2009, the service provider that took over from Grape Smart, Dutch company Cool Fresh, which later registered a local subsidiary, Cool Fresh Management Group Namibia, dismissed 17 workers. The workers, most of whom were temporary workers on the NDC payroll, claimed they were unfairly dismissed.

This labour matter was arbitrated in favour of the 17 dismissed during 2010.

But staff said intimidation by the ministry continued. In September 2009, the then permanent secretary of Agriculture, Andrew Ndishishi, instructed junior ministerial staff to cut the electricity of one of the permanent staff who had been dismissed despite a court order that the worker be reinstated with benefits, which included free housing.

The staff member, Ben Kandorozu, was evicted from the ORIP project in September 2010, despite attempts by high officials - including the deputy minister of agriculture, Peter Iilonga - to reconsider Kandorozu's status at the company.

The staff now say that despite a formal request to the NDC that it consider alternative redeployment of staff to other NDC agricultural projects, nothing has come of it.

They claimed that the NDC instead was willing to "hand-pick" white managers to the exclusion of experienced black staff.

"All this despite the fact that the [former] management staff retrenched by NDC at Aussenkehr were fully trained on these crops [the various grape cultivars being produced at the ORIP] and had the necessary experience," one of the dismissed asserted.

After an investigation into the dismissed workers' claims that the ORIP project was being "privatised" and managed by foreigners instead of Namibians, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in 2008 was satisfied with a response from the Agriculture Ministry that technical know-how in the management, production, and branding was required because the grapes produced at the project were primarily meant for international export markets and subject to stringent phytosanitary standards.

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