18 December 2012

Namibia: Where to on the Labour Front?

ONE has hoped, albeit optimistically, that the tripartism in our country, under the conditions of the peace and stability we have enjoyed so far, should have reached a stage where labour problems can be resolved between the employers, union representatives and workers without the involvement of the public at large. That would have been the preferable situation.

We now experience huge divisions that drive the tripartite (employer, union and workers) apart with negative consequences to the economy and the country's governance. Because of this, the image of the leadership to solve internal issues amicably suffers a great deal.

The Office of the Labour Commissioner gets overwhelmed as the tripartite partners fail to reach agreement. It then spills over to other offices such as the Ministry of Labour, Office of the Prime Minister (which has been very careful to engage) and ultimately State House. One's appeal would have been to spare all the other offices the burden of labour disputes and keep it among the tripartite partners. Let's put the house in order and learn to plan and engage consistently, not only when the workers start demanding an increase in benefits.

Let's also not create an impression that increase in benefits is only acquired upon workers' demands, or that there should be negotiations for salary increments every year. The government has set a principled example that other employers should emulate: to have a permanent negotiating structure in place.

There has been a failure on the part of those who represent the workers to give regular feedback to their members on the nature and the stages in the process of negotiations. This may lead to communication breakdown and redundancy in the mandate of the negotiators, which later impacts the credibility of the employer and government in this case.

Coming to the strike by the teachers. Yes, teachers as workers have all the rights in the world to demand benefits. Yes at the current levels of benefits, teachers deserve better especially when it comes to remuneration and housing.

But one would have expected a more honourable approach from the teaching fraternity. One where delegations, coordinated in harmony with those who negotiate on their behalf, could ask to see the ministry, if it was something outside the ordinary ongoing negotiation process. Knowing the minister, this was possible and it would have received his attention.

Because teaching is an honourable profession it disappointed us to see them defy a court order. This was ugly. One would agree that if it was not for the patience of our law enforcement agents, the situation could have become chaotic.

We should not misuse that patience. Honourable as they may be, teachers cannot behave as if they are untouchable and above the law. They should bear in mind that the judiciary cannot be weakened by people or institutional behaviours. Subsequent to the court order, the courts still remain an open institution that aggrieved parties can revert to if there was a feeling that the order/judgement was wrong.

Disregarding a court judgement can lead to other offences, and teachers should know better. Another aspect is that serious attention needs to be given to the relationship between the teachers and their union representatives. When teachers blame the government, disregarding their representatives who were sitting at the bargaining table with the same government's representatives, then somewhere something has gone wrong.

For teaching to be the honourable profession it is said to be, sacrificing for a good cause, namely imparting of skills to the youth (students) should reign supreme. Negotiations could have continued; protests could have happened after official teaching time; or a dispute could have been declared and where, if needs be, other offices of appeal could have been engaged.

In retrospect, times are hard and it is incumbent on all of us to face situations with sober, fair, and just minds without necessarily having to strike.

A situation where the employer is able to base negotiations on the financial situation of the company/institution and its future prospects and wellbeing of its employees. Where the representatives of the workers are able to lay demands commensurate with the prospects put forward by the company/institution or counter such with well resourced arguments. Where the interests of the workers are continuously consulted and their mandates carried out.

In such situations the interest of the workers that should reign supreme, while the conscience of the employer, its equity and fairness comes to bear. It is a situation where the larger impact of such action should be looked at against the overall stability, prosperity, peace and economic progress of the country. Bottom line, one would not want to see workers losing jobs and benefits due to our resolve as leaders to disregard peaceful resolution of our problems.

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