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Billion-dollar Rail Project In Jeopardy As Workers Down Tools

By: Kelvin Chiringa

The N$1 billion Kranzberg and Walvisbay-Swakopmund rail rehabilitation project is now in jeopardy after workers downed their tools this Tuesday, citing unfair labour relations.

The project is being spearheaded by Unik Construction, a Chinese owned company that also won the tender to construct the N$730 million Swapo Head Quarters.

At the centre of the worker’s grievances is the alleged importation of labour from South Africa at the expense of locals equally skilled and capacitated to carry out the same tasks.

The company has been accused of employing South Africans when they had told workers that they were carrying out a cost-cutting and retrenchment exercise.

“We are working for a joint venture, but the main company is Unik. But there is a South African company that tendered underneath Unik. They have the whole railway tender from Kranzberg to Walvis Bay. We have downed tools because of the unfair treatment we face here in Usakos.

“The South African company, and since the work is here in Namibia, is supposed to hire Namibians. Labourers come from Usakos, and for highly skilled trades, they import from other regions. The machinery from South Africa came with their operators from South Africa,” said one of the workers who spoke to The Villager.

The worker further said the company recruited four specialists from other regions. According to the employee, one specialist resigned and went to D&M Rail but “thereafter, the company said they were busy with cost-cutting and said they would retrench. They retrenched a Namibian supervisor and recruited two South Africans,”

In the meantime, the massive rail project was due for completion this year.

In 2019, Eagle FM reported that seven other companies had bid for the rail upgrades tender that is being financed by a N$10 billion loan from the African Development Bank (AfDB).

According to sources at the time, Unik Construction was allowed to subcontract about 70 per cent of the job to a South African company, Aveng, despite African Development Bank’s rules that only 25 per cent may be subcontracted.

Documents show that the then Works ministry executive director, Willem Goeieman, wrote to the deputy director, Josephine Ngure, at the African Development Bank on 27 October, informing her about a no-objection to award the tender to Unik Construction.

However, Goeieman told Ngure that the works ministry had a reservation with Unik Construction’s low bid.

Goeieman also told Ngure that the bid evaluation process had highlighted some important deficiencies regarding the African Development Bank’s standard procurement documentation and bid-evaluation guidelines.

According to Goeieman, the African Development Bank’s rules that require no capping provisions for subcontracting is an oversight that does not conform to the bank’s guidelines nor that of Namibia.

He further said that the significant degree of subcontracting employed by some bidders raises questions on the pre-qualification hurdles that limited the participation of Namibian contractors.

Furthermore, Goeieman told Ngure that the World Bank had barred some bidders and allowed their bids against Namibia’s policies and practices.

However, the importation of labour from South Africa has torched a storm with the workers this week.

“We have reported our case to our union, and we can see that the union is fighting for us, but we are not getting the answers we want. So we have said let’s take a step further, and we have said let us bring in (Michael) Amushelelo so that some of our problems can be solved,” said another worker who identified himself only as Norman.

He added, “Our problem is also money. We are hired out to the South African company by Unik, which is also handling our payroll. For two years now, we have been stuck on our minimum rate. That is the problem, the rate, money.”

Namibia is currently in the throes of a wave of protest action from construction workers. Avic, a Chinese-owned company constructing the Hosea Kutako International Airport, has experienced this. Workers have ditched the Windhoek-Okahandja road due to a lack of payments to the strike at China Hena International Cooperation closer to Keetmanshoop.

Namibia Protection Service (NPS) guards also downed tools, while the Rundu and Oshakati Town Councils also voted for a strike demanding an increment.

Kelvin Chiringa

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