The Sociology Department of the University of Namibia in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation is currently hosting a lecture series on the state of Namibia’s labour movement.
There is no doubt that two decades after independence, Namibia’s trade unions face a difficult reality.
Neo-liberal economic policies have deepened the social divide between income earners in permanent employment, and the majority who has to cope with insecure livelihoods, often finding themselves out of work and fighting a daily struggle for survival.
In addition there are even huge wage gaps between the top earners in the formal sector (managers) who often earn more than N$100 000 per month and many workers earning around N$1 000 per month!.
The sharp contrast between affluent suburbs and the rapidly growing informal settlements on the margins of all the urban centres in Namibia bears witness to that.
Given these realities, where do the National Union of Namibia Workers (NUNW) and the Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA) stand? Whom in society do they represent?
The crucial role that the NUNW and its affiliates played during the liberation struggle is undisputed but what relevance do trade unions have today?
The introduction of tripartism and basic workers rights after independence certainly improved the framework for union activities but at the same time, the unions’ role was severely limited to collective bargaining only.
This covered mainly workers with permanent jobs while those with temporary jobs (“casual workers”) as well as those in the informal economy and in the rural areas are hardly recruited and covered by trade unions.
As workplace-bound organizations, unions also found it impossible to reach unemployed workers.
These constraints mean that trade union represent an ever-shrinking section of Namibia’s working class.
More than half of Namibians who are classified as “employed” do not have permanent, formal sector jobs.
They either have just “casual” work from time to time or operate in the informal economy where most provisions of the Labour Act do not apply in practice.
Currently none of the more than 30 trade unions operating in Namibia have been able to reach those workers.
Instead they are concentrated in those sectors where permanent workers are: the public sector, the mining and fishing industries and a few more. Thus unions are confronted with an urgent question of representation: unless they can devise strategies to successfully recruit and represent workers who are not permanently employed in the formal sector, their membership base and relevance will continue to shrink.
What makes matters worse is that unions are divided amongst themselves. A host of competing unions are emerging and fight each other for membership without being able to co-operate on issues that are of concern to all of them.
Such divisions may serve individual political interests but they undermine the potential power of the Namibian labour movement as a whole.
A further challenge for Namibia’s trade unions is the question of ideological clarity as working class organisations.
The statements and practices of several trade unions during the past few years have revealed deep-seated ideological contradictions.
Sentiments of radical nationalism and liberation, for example on the land issue, have been combined with an acceptance of neo-liberalism as the ideology of the “free market”. As trade union leaders entered company boards as part of a poorly defined union investment strategy, their views (and interests) increasingly converged with those of business.
Also, some trade union leaders are now occupying management positions in the public and private sectors, which contradicts the principle of worker control within unions. These developments point to a lack of clarity regarding the working-class base of the labour movement and whose interests it is meant to serve.
Confronting these challenges is a huge task that trade unions will face in the years to come.
Currently they are preoccupied with short-term struggles around bread and butter issues while the bigger questions of socio-economic justice and changes beyond the workplace are hardly addressed. However, Namibian unions have a long experience of struggle and a significant potential for organisation and action. Thus they still have the potential to become – at the very least – an effective pressure group for more fundamental socio-economic change.
I have pointed out before that Namibia’s trade unions essentially face two possible scenarios today.
Provided they can redefine their role as “struggle organisations” with a strategic agenda, they may once again become influential social actors.
Failure to do this will result in Namibian unions continuously losing their mass base while union leaders are absorbed with bargaining issues, party political careers, union investments and tripartite participation without challenging the fundamental socio-economic structures that uphold the continued skewed distribution of wealth and income.