THE Labour Commission has been shrouded by massive misconceptions during its three years of existence so far according to Labour Commissioner Bro-Mathew Shinguadja who in this article below settles the score with Prime Focus.

PF: What is the major function and mandate of the Labour Commission?

LC: The Labour Commission receives and registers as well as conciliates and arbitrates labour related disputes. Our purpose also serves to provide advice to both employees and employers on dispute and conflict prevention and resolution. The Commission also registers trade unions compiles annual reports on labour statistics in the country.

PF: As a public entity whose purpose is to serve the general public, can we say that the Commission has made itself available to the general public since its inception in November 2008?

LC: We are available to the public country wide. We have publications about our activities and purpose. We disseminate these publications through fliers at trade fairs or when we host public meetings to educate the masses. We are also often approached by the public and hold private meetings where we are approached by trade unions, employer’s organisations, individuals among others.

PF: Since inception and despite its existence, the 2008/9 and even 2010 years have been marked with labour strikes/riots such as the late 2008 TransNamib strikes, which, according to Namibian Employers Federation (NEF) President Vekii Rukoro, cost the nation an estimated N$180 million. Have these disputes acted as eye opener to the Commission and how effective have you been in avoiding the recurrence of such activities?

LC: First of all, I think there were not so many strikes in that period. Let me say that strikes are a constitutional right, provided they are done within legal boundaries. Many people are under the misconception that strikes are illegal. Another thing is that we (the Commission) cannot prevent workers from going on strike or employers to lock workers out. We can only facilitate and advice in search of an amicable solution. And I don’t know what source Rukoro used to gain or estimate the N$180 million. Lastly, businesses are focused on trying to cut costs but eventually incur them by delaying amicable negotiations which would bring about swift resolutions to disputes.

PF: Can we conclusively say that labour disputes in the country are beyond the Labour Commissions’ sphere of influence?

LC: No, we are mandated to deal with all labour disputes. Our current Annual Report indicates this fact as we have a high percentage success rate.

PF: How far have you gone in making sure that your services reach all and sundry such as the informal sector for example domestic workers and farm workers among others?

LC: Even if a person works in a kambashu, we are obliged to take up that case as we make no distinction in the sector in which a person works. As long as you are either an employer or employee, our jurisdiction is to attend to your conflict. The informal sector is not excluded from our mandate.

PF: The issue of affecting a minimum wage on the various sectors of employment has been met with a lot of resistance from some sectors. How far have you gone in monitoring that the minimum wage set is cordially abided to by employers?

LC: We encourage industries and unions to set minimum wages. The Ministry of Labour is still trying to set domestic wages. We also have labour inspectors, although some employers adhere to the set minimum wage. It is not an easy thing, as one has to be careful when setting minimum wages. If set too high, some employers may even resort to hiring relatives to work for them instead.

PF: To whom does the Labour Commission report to on its functions and which other organisations within Government do you work with hand in glove to obtain your preferred results?

LC: We report to the Ministry of Labour or Minister of Labour. We do work with the Labour Courts, Government Attorney, the Ombudsman, Social Security, Employers’ Organisations and National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) and the various other Trade Unions.

PF: Would you proudly say since inception the Labour Commission has managed to drift from the traditional handling of labour issues and how do you think this can be further improved?

LC: The new system has a totally different approach from the past labour courts. It is transformation of how labour relations should be improved and dealt with. It is simple, cheap and very direct. It is a face to face dialogue between the parties in conflict with the presence of an independent conciliator or arbitrator.

PF: How is the relationship between the Labour Commission and both the public and private sector labour organisations?

LC: I can’t say that we have excellent working conditions as that is not possible. But we do have a stable working relationship where mutual respect exists. I can say that it is fine.

PF: Has the Labour Commission managed to adopt the prerequisite bylaws by the International Labour Organisation to place Namibia in line with international labour statutes?

LC: They are called conventions and Namibia has ratified almost 10 conventions including core conventions such as freedom to organize unions. We are bound by these conventions and Namibia is in line with international Labour Statutes.

PF: What are some of the challenges being faced by the Labour Commission and what initiatives have you taken in trying to resolve these challenges?

LC: We have constraints in educating the public as far as the Labour Act is concerned. Many come to us in a bid to gain superior favour for one or other reason and what they don’t know is that we don’t fight with anybody. We are neutral; we cannot take sides but listen to both sides and weigh evidence. Another problem is Human Resources, we need well trained conciliators/arbitrators and we need them in numbers. This is also in our Information Technology department. Recruitment of staff is a big challenge as the market absorbs most of the well trained people because they are fiscally better off in those industries.

PF: The Labour Commissioner has been on the receiving end for failing poor Namibians who have labour disputes with their employers; most have cases of unfair dismissal and discrimination. What is your take to these allegations?

LC: It’s good that you say allegations because when cases go for litigations our statistics compared to these allegations were in favour of employees. However, our judiciary system seems to be in favour of employers and we have a bottleneck about this with the courts. The rich can even drag a case on for a year and expect the employees to pay security fees of up to N$150 000. Where can employees get such money when many of them don’t even get that as an annual income? The courts do not realise the circumstances of the poor but this is beyond our jurisdiction.

PF: Issues of bureaucracy have been mentioned as affecting the Labour Commission as well as other arms of Government. How far has your office gone in trying to do away with this red tape?

LC: We do not have conditions of bureaucracy existing in our office as we are a public institution. Our actions are dictated by a manual. To us bureaucracy is not there.

PF: Finally, what is your position on Chinese businesses paying locals peanuts? What must be done and by who?

LC: Yes, I heard about it. The Chinese businesses compare with and refer to local standards. Namibian businesses are in the habit of under paying their employees and they have set this infrastructure. Namibians have to lead by example because it’s very bad when we expect Chinese to treat our employees with regard and respect but fail to do so ourselves. I want to urge local entrepreneurs to really make this effort to cultivate these reasonable remuneration norms and also the workers to take their work seriously and apply punctuality, discipline and commitment to their work. PF