COVID-19 threatening the Jobs, Health and Living Environment of Namibian Workers

General Secretary of Namibian Metal Worker Union, Justina Jonas, about Labour Day in the Times of the Virus.

Justina Jonas

Image: Justina Jonas, MANWU of Justina Jonas

The corona pandemic and governments’ responses targeted at “flattening the curve” have severe consequences for the day-to-day struggles of workers all over the continent. Just before May Day Bastian Schulz, Director of FES TUCC, engaged Comrade Justina Jonas, General Secretary of MANWU, the Namibian Metal and Allied Workers Union, in a discussion around the current situation in Namibia and MANWUs strategies to effectively represent the interests of its more than 6.500 members.

Bastian Schulz, FES TUCC: What does the corona pandemic mean for you and for your union? What does it mean for your members and workers in general?

Justina Jonas, MANWU: Corona virus has posed huge risks to worker’s jobs, health and their living environment, this is the same at the union level and all our sectors we are organizing. So far we already received information from two companies that want to retrench workers due to the pandemic - this will affect about 50 workers. The Ministry of Labour is currently busy consolidating data related to COVID19 employment dismissals. As we speak our COVID-19 cases are still standing at 16 with seven cases reported recovered well.

How do you evaluate the responses of the Namibian government and Southern African Governments in general?

The Namibian government has responded well and has unveiled a 8.1 billion COVID-19 stimulus package including funds for the unemployed, for wage subsidies and funds to help employers and the health sector. Namibia’s Social Security Commission also announced a COVID-19 stimulus package for wage subsidy over three months and assistance to the informal sector. At the SADC level, I think governments are also trying their best with the epicenter country being South Africa at the moment. Our prayers go to the affected people and we salute the working class who are at the forefront of the epidemic.

What does organized labour need to do in order to improve the situation of Namibian workers?

We urgently need to engage employers to help us through collective bargaining to mitigate job losses and avoid retrenchments, we believe that if employers and employees hold hands during this time, more jobs can be saved. Government through the Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment Creation have given a Labour Directive relating to COVID-19 under the State of Emergency Regulations. We have noted, however, that many employers are not complying with the directives. Hence we need to enforce strategies to bring employers to the table and negotiate.

What kind of employers are you dealing with? International conglomerates or small Namibian companies? And how do they react differently to the challenges?

Small and medium enterprises are struggling to pay their employees on a monthly basis and to ensure adequate health and safety for their employees and workers in general. Hence during this time, many workers in the SMEs will be likely not going to be paid because of the pandemic.

For multinational companies the situation is slightly different because they have more financial power and savings. However, we are seeing that some of these MNCs are taking advantage of the situation. They are in a position to pay their employees, but they are forcing workers to use their annual leave days without consulting workers. Some MNCs are paying workers half salaries and some are paying between 50%-75% of employees’ earnings. Some MNCs are threatening workers with dismissals if they do not accept the measures proposed by them in order to avoid retrenchments.

What is the situation of the workers in the informal sector? And who represents their interests?

The informal sector is currently more vulnerable than ever mainly because of the restrictions imposed by government which make it difficult if not illegal for workers in the informal sector to operate. The informal traders who are not performing essential services are losing income at present. After successful lobbying on the Tripartite Committee through the Ministry of Labour, the informal sector has succeeded in getting financial assistance from Social Security Commission during the lockdown. Furthermore, government have rolled out the Emergency Income Grants which many informal traders benefit from as well.

At MANWU level, last year we have started the discussion to organize the informal sector. This year we want to do research to better understand the challenges those workers are faced with, but also to get an idea about the size and shape of the informal sector in Namibia, hoping that we can get funding for this important research.

How do your own unions try and influence the political debates and conflicts around the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic?

Our online campaign supporting the Labour Directive related to COVID-19 as issued by the Ministry is aimed at reminding employers to show humanity to their employees whom they are currently treating the as they are not human beings. So far we have been reaching more than 5000 people in a country with problematic internet access for the working population and only about 300 000 jobs in the formal economy.

Sitting on the Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and employment Creation Triapartite Committee dealing with COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to fight for our members interest. The construction industry is one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 lockdown. The industry has about 34 000 workers and the majority of them will either be paid half a salary or no salary at all. Hence, we need to ensure that our engagement with government and our overall participation in the political debates ultimately benefit our members in that they are not sent home without pay.

How will you use the Labour Day to pressurize employers to respect collective bargaining also in times of crisis and to actually implement the government’s Labour Directives?

Under our national centre (National Union of Namibian Workers), we have worked out our Labour Day statement as well strategies around proposed actions for the day. MANWUs main demands are to save as many jobs as many as possible, for employers to respect the principle of collective bargaining during COVID-19 pandemic and stop making unilaterally decisions on behalf of the workers. We also urge our government to put a special focus on COVID-19 economic and social issues at the national level and to make sure that workers are to be represented on all decision-making bodies established by government. COVID-19 impact is mainly felt by workers as the generators of income and, therefore, their interests need to be adequately represented.

Justina Jonas is the General Secretary of the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU).

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