Labour experts have weighed in on the country’s labour unions, describing the current status of trade unions as weak and poorly organised. Herbert Jauch said the overall status of trade unions in the country is currently weak and concentrated.
“Overall, our trade unions are quite weak right now and still deeply divided into three trade union federations and about 40 industrial unions. Workers often no longer feel like they are the ‘owners’ of the unions who take decisions, give mandates and receive feedback,” said the researcher. According to Jauch, trade unions are concentrated only in certain sectors such as the public sector, mining, and fishing, construction while other sectors such as domestic workers, farmworkers, security guards, petrol station workers and informal economy workers receive little to no attention.
This, according to Jauch, resulted in weakened union structures and often a lack of accountability by union leaders towards their members. “We have seen this play out in several strikes in recent years where union leaders agreed to a deal with employers without having a mandate from their members. As a result, workers then feel betrayed by their union,” he said.
He added, now, trade unions need to focus on how to grow their membership. “Their focus should not only be on those employed formally as the fraction is tiny and those competing for a share are more,” he advised.
The Director of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI), Michael Akuupa said the new entrants are certainly addressing a particular need, which is not being addressed by existing trade unions.
“Time will tell for one to make an analysis on their successes and shortcomings,” he said. Akuupa said the last labour force survey shows that the trade union density is 20.6% of the total employed persons. This means there is still space for more players on the field. “The only challenge all unions face will be to organise the ever-growing economic sector namely the informal economy workers.”
He said the formal economy will continue to shrink as a result of growing informality. Another observation he made is that of workers in the public service who wanted to change union membership as a result of how their issues were dealt with by the bargaining union.
“That matter can be read in terms of trade union services and benefits, including their abilities to deliver on their mandate. The study we did for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) three years ago illuminated the need for trade unions to review their services so they are in line with emerging trends,” said the labour expert.
He said one such is understanding of the economy to observe tripartite arrangements and social dialogue.
“If services and benefits offered by unions to their members are not up to standard, then workers will be disappointed,” he said.
“There are also unions that are established in certain sectors. However, it is important to note that to be established in a sector does not mean or guarantee perpetuity. Thus, their challenge remains to be relevant and solution driven. As a result, workers will always move from one union to the other in search of better services,” he said.
Earlier this week, the country’s largest union federations, the National Union of Namibian Workers and the Trade Union Congress of Namibia said they were not worried by upstart Affirmative Repositioning movement’s Revolutionary Union (RU).
The RU, although not fully registered yet, made headlines recently when they confronted employers who were accused of mistreating workers and sharing videos of these encounters on social media. They also managed to get retailer Choppies to severe ties with the Employment Placement Services of Namibia, owned by politician Gottlieb Ndjendjela.
The union says its aim is to strive to liberate Namibian workers “from reactionary and ineffective unions, of which the leaders have colluded with employers to exploit workers”.