Namibia: Labour Union Sues Govt Over NBC

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Namibia's biggest labour union has filed a lawsuit against the government, accusing it of sacrificing Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) employees as part of the government's N$3,7 billion bailout loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This is said by Namibian Public Workers Union (Napwu) general secretary Petrus Nevonga in a sworn statement filed at the Labour Court in Windhoek this week.

Napwu is suing the NBC, the government and finance minister Iipumbu Shiimi on behalf of striking workers at the national broadcaster.

In an affidavit filed at the Labour Court, Nevonga says NBC employees could be affected by the government's decision to concede

to the IMF's requirement of "structural reforms" as a condition for the approval of its loan extended to Namibia.

Key to Namibia's promise to the IMF was that the government was going to cut its wage bill and sell off or close a number of its assets, especially state-owned enterprises.

Documents filed at the court show this undertaking was given by Shiimi and Bank of Namibia governor Johannes !Gawaxab to IMF managing director Kristina Georgieva in a letter dated 12 February 2021.

"We are planning to implement fiscal reforms to increase expenditure efficiency in FY21/22 and gradually phase out exceptional Covid-19 spending. Notably we will contain the wage bill through a wage freeze in FY21/22, allowing for natural attrition, except in priority social sectors, and implementing a targeted and phased early retirement scheme," read Shiimi and !Gawaxab's joint letter.

They added: "Furthermore, we aim at improving the performance and management of state-owned enterprises and conducting selected divestments."

The government this year slashed the NBC's funding by 60% - from N$334 million in the 2020/21 financial year to N$127 million in 2021/22.

Nevonga says in his affidavit that the government knew all along it had no intention of honouring wage increases for NBC employees, and was set in cutting funding to the NBC, but nonetheless continued negotiating with Napwu about wage raises.

Nevonga says the government's deal with the IMF has been kept from Napwu and workers represented by the union.

Napwu is now accusing the NBC's management and the government of having negotiated in bad faith from the onset.

"The impression was created that there was a realistic basis for the wage negotiations. The initial understanding reached on wage increases induced and cemented the belief on the part of Napwu, however, behind the scenes other arrangements were being made by the government and the International Monetary Fund," says Nevonga in his sworn statement.

He claims the government had all along planned to frustrate NBC employees into leaving the national broadcaster through a policy of "natural attrition".

He says the NBC management's decision to allow for striking workers' jobs to be done by machines operated by their non-striking colleagues sends a message to those striking that they are no longer needed and can simply be replaced.

"Years of dedicated work for the NBC and the public is trivialised and discarded. This again is bound to lead to resignation by workers who feel unappreciated and alienated," says Nevonga.

He says the situation has "exposed a government which in its desire to secure funding from the IMF abandoned the workers, [and] made deals with the IMF which will lead to the demise of a public asset without first consulting the Namibian people".

The undertakings made to the IMF have neutralised the right to strike, not only of the NBC workers but also for public service workers in general, he says.

Napwu is asking the Labour Court to declare that the NBC's conduct is contravening the joint recognition and procedural agreement which the union and the national broadcaster signed in September 2011.

The union is further asking the court to declare that the conduct of the NBC and the government undermines orderly collective bargaining and constitutes unfair labour practice and bargaining in bad faith.

The union's application is scheduled to be heard in court on Thursday next week.

NBC board chairperson Lazarus Jacobs in a statement last month said resorting to industrial action would not benefit any party and would only deprive Namibians of critical information, especially during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

He said should the strike continue in its current form, it would worsen the NBC's financial position to the extent that the corporation would not be able to pay its employees' salaries.

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