Walvis Bay — Some fish factory workers and fishermen say they are being exploited and neglected despite the key role played by the fisheries sector in the economy.
They say government has empowered previously disadvantaged Namibians by granting them fishing quotas. However, some fishermen and factory workers feel they are at the receiving end as they create wealth for others while they themselves are neglected.
This is the view of Julia Heita (47) a general worker at a fish factory in Walvis Bay. Speaking to New Era recently Heita said she has nothing to show for all her hard work after being employed as a general worker for 24 years in the sector that has uplifted so many previously disadvantaged individuals.
"One expects your living conditions to improve, but my life is still a constant struggle since I started working in the fishing industry.
The cost of living increases daily. Water and electricity are expensive, other basics as well. I am battling to make ends meet with the meagre salary I earn," says Heita.
Heita earns N$1 900 a month before deductions and her expenses include paying for accommodation (a shack), food as well as maintaining her family in the north. She further explained that she simply cannot afford to buy a house and that benefits such as housing allowances remain a distant dream for her and her colleagues.
The recent housing index issued by the First National Bank of Namibia indicated that the majority of Namibians cannot afford to buy houses simply because houses are too expensive.
"It hurts to know we are generating billions for the fishing industry, but we earn so little. We might not be educated but clearly we deserve better salaries. How long must we march and demonstrate before the government and our employers finally hear our pleas?" Heita asked.
Fisherman Joseph Shaama echoed Heita's sentiments. Shaama says many Namibian fishermen and factory workers are being exploited and he is of the opinion that government is turning a blind eye to the situation.
In contrast to the starvation wages paid to fish factory workers and fishermen, board members of some of the fishing ventures draw monthly allowances of up to N$15 000.
"I have been a fisherman for as long as I can remember, but I earn a salary of N$3 600 a month with no benefits at all," said a despondent Shaama, adding that only a few factories value their workers whom they pay decent wages.
"Some companies really have their employees' social wellbeing at heart. I am aware of fishermen that go home with not less than N$9 000 a month," he said, adding: "I bow my head in shame whenever they boast about their salaries."
According to him foreign workers in the fishing industry can easily earn three times as much as a Namibian worker, despite the fact that they do exactly the same jobs. "The fact is, we are all aware how much tonnes we catch and how much the companies generate, but our salaries are a disgrace. We are underpaid and yet billions are made from the fish we catch day and night," Shaama said.
According to Daniel Imbili of the Namibia Fishing Industries and Fishermen Workers Union, Namibian leaders need to address the issues raised by the general workers in the fishing industry. He said workers in fish factories are the backbone of the industry and urgent intervention is needed by all stakeholders to uplift their social circumstances.
According to him, the fishing industry caters for the social needs of those not involved in the industry, while their employees are also in dire need of assistance.
"All stakeholders must really take a closer look at the salary scales of these workers and impose a minimum wage like in other industries to make sure that our workers are not exploited and underpaid," Imbili said.
New Era was reliably informed that various representatives and human resource managers of all fishing companies met last week in Walvis Bay to discuss matters that are affecting the fishing industry.
Namibia is rated highly for its fish exports by production value. The fishing industry employs about 13 000 workers, of whom about 43 percent are sea-going personnel and 57 percent are involved in onshore processing.
The hake sector, which is the main employer in the fishing industry, employs 9 000 people. The fisheries sector is the third largest economic sector in terms of contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which stood at about N$3.9 billion during 2011, according to data from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
The industry is expected to grow to N$4.2 billion at the end of the current economic cycle.