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The rise of ‘militant’ unions in Namibia

Written by on April 30, 2024

As Namibia joins the rest of the world in celebrating Workers’ Day tomorrow, most unionists in the country feel the financial situation is tough for many workers.

Workers’ Day, celebrated every first day of May worldwide, coincides with the rise of radical unions.

Among them are the National Union of Retail Industry Workers of Namibia, fronted by businessman-cum-activist Michael Amushelelo, as well as the Namibia Media Professionals Union (Nampu) fronted by Jemima Beukes, and the Affirmative Repositioning-affiliated Revolutionary Union.

Unionists say key challenges faced by workers include poor living conditions, the high cost of living and inflationary pressures, which erode disposable income.

Jemima Beukes


Amushelelo says most workers have completely lost faith in their unions due to ‘sellout unions’.

“However, thanks to the introduction of the National Union of Retail Industry Workers of Namibia, as well as the Namibia Security Workers Union of which I am the president, workers are regaining their faith and trust in unions once more,” he says.

Amushelelo says a big challenge for unions is the weaponisation of the courts to grant interdicts to companies to prevent unions from representing workers.

“Thus far, we have been interdicted from Namib Mills Pty Ltd and Namica Supermarket CC, where we have members who need our representation due to the exploitation of workers. The high unemployment rate we have in our country also makes it difficult for workers to exercise sit-ins as a tool for industrial action, because they are just immediately dismissed and replaced with the next unemployed individual,” he says.

Amushelelo says strikes were the greatest defence against exploitation, however, a Supreme Court ruling, which now allows companies to make use of casual workers while employees are striking, makes it difficult for workers to force companies to negotiate with them.

“A divided workforce will never be able to fight capitalism. Workers should understand that capitalism is all about the exploitation of workers to maximise profits,” Amushelelo says.

Michael Amushelelo


He says another factor is the “non-existent Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment Creation”, which he says is supposed to enforce and protect the interests of workers.

Amushelelo says the government considers investors’ interests before those of workers.

“Now that they are dealing with militant and radical unions, confrontation becomes the order of the day to force them to the negotiation table.

“Plus, most companies, once they see it is the militant and radical unions, refuse us entry to their premises, and, unfortunately, we are forced to take action to show them we are not these useless Mickey Mouse unions they are used to dealing with,” Amushelelo says.

Herbert Jauch


Labour expert Herbert Jauch says many unions face the challenge of high youth unemployment.

He says the majority are not able to enter the job market, while those employed are not earning decent salaries.

“If they enter the job market, they are earning low salaries with no job security and benefits, and many are not working in sectors with decent salaries,” Jauch says.

He says several trade unions have become fragmented over the years, leaving the country with over 40 unions.

“In many cases, these unions do not work together, despite them representing workers. They do not form alliances and many are working against each other,” Jauch says.

He says unions are turning to confrontational approaches to resolve matters when no agreement is reached between a union and an employer.

Meanwhile, Trade Union Congress of Namibia secretary general Mahongora Kavihuha says Workers’ Day is meant for unions to give feedback to their members on progress made, adding it is a day on which to engage union members and listen to their concerns.

He says many unions have turned to the government and have allowed political interference by inviting government officials to their engagements.

Kavihuha says unions are overregulated, resulting in them taking too long to finalise members’ issues, which then leads to the formation of new unions.

Mahongora Kavihuha


Affirmative Repositioning (AR) Otjozondjupa chairperson Johannes Johannes says as unionists, they are facing constant political interference in resolving their members’ challenges.

Johannes says due to political interference, registering a union takes time.

“You are being sent back and forth for petty things, especially when we were registering the AR as a union. Currently, our members are still facing issues, such as peanut salaries, long working hours and constant threats from employers,” he says.

Johannes says the current labour law gives many employers the chance to avoid any negotiations with employees, allowing businesses to operate while workers are on strike.

“We need the Labour Act to be reviewed and not allow businesses to operate while workers are on strike. Some employers even go to the extent of recruiting new employees, while others are on strike, with a no-work, no-pay policy,” he says.

Johannes says confrontational approaches are currently the only way to allow employers to come to the negotiating table.

“Many workers in Namibia are not allowed to join trade unions to defend them and, due to the fact that people need jobs, they are forced to be on their own. At the moment, we will use confrontational ways if need be,” he says.

Namibia Media Professionals Union spokesperson Charmaine Ngatjuheue says some of the challenges their members are facing include a lack of job security, low salaries, long working hours, contract issues, delayed remuneration, poor mental health, and a delay in formally registering the union.

“We hope the process will be finalised this year,” she says, adding that resolving disputes in a confrontational way has resulted in positive results in some cases, although the union also solves challenges amicably.

The post The rise of ‘militant’ unions in Namibia appeared first on The Namibian.

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