Dismissed fishermen vow to fight on
…Still waiting on Kawana
By Jade McClune
IN what may yet prove to be the longest running industrial strike action and a turning point in the history of modern-day Namibia, the group of dismissed but defiant fishermen at Walvis Bay, who have been demanding since 2015 to be protected under the basic provisions of the Labour Act, have vowed to fight on against all odds.
In an in-depth interview with leaders of the fishermen’s committee near the harbour on Monday, the workers – who four years after the launch of their historic strike action still gather on weekdays at the Kuisebmond stadium to discuss and plan the way forward – spoke about the hardships they have faced since going on strike in October 2015 to demand overtime payment, night allowance and danger pay.
The assistant to chairman Matthew Lungameni and spokesman of the group, Onesmus Shaulwa, said that around 25 workers had lost their lives since the strike began; many fell into poor health, depression and several committed suicide, while others succumbed to diabetes, high-blood pressure and other stress-related illnesses.
The dismissed workers, who were the breadwinners of their families are mostly destitute now, with many living in the poorest parts of Kuisebmond, without access to basic services or proper housing.
Shaulwa said the acting Minister of Justice Albert Kawana had promised last year to meet with them, but up to now they have not had any word from the ministry regarding when or where such meeting would take place.
Shortly after his appointment to the post, Kawana publicly said the dismissed workers should be re-instated, following the sudden resignation in mid-November of disgraced former minister Bernhardt Esau, who is heavily implicated in corruption, bribery, money-laundering and fraud and is currently in custody awaiting trial alongside his alleged accomplice, the former justice minister Sacky Shanghala.
“I was given a directive by Cabinet to make sure that all those [fishermen] who lost their jobs, get it back as soon as possible. These workers should go back to work as this is a directive by President Hage Geingob,” Kawana said in early December.
Out of desperation, some workers have since resorted to scavenging on the rubbish-heap to survive. Others returned to the rural parts to cultivate their parents’ fields in the communal area, but a strong core of the strikers are standing their ground and determined to fight on.
Secretary Richard Mbaha said the workers are owed a large amount of money for overtime worked, night-time allowances and back-pay. They also want to be compensated for the damages they suffered from 25 October 2015 up to the present, as well as compensation to the families of the 25 workers who lost their lives in the intervening period.
Shaulwa said they wrote the opposition parties. “Some come with empty promises” but in the end there was no real support. They believe that Members of Parliament are reluctant or unwilling to address their concerns about persistent violations of the Labour Act, because many MPs on both sides of the House have a stake in the fishing industry. “Our politicians want to eat alone, they don’t want to share.”
Some of the men strongly suspect that Shanghala and Esau conspired to change the fisheries law to benefit themselves and their business partners at the expense of the Namibian workers. They say Shanghala had wrongly labeled their action as an “illegal strike”, because he had a direct financial interest in defaming and undermining the workers’ struggle.
The massive strike action started when over 3,000 workers initially walked off the job in October 2015. They said the Labour Act limits the working day to maximum eight hours, but seagoing workers were forced to work up to 16-hour shifts and at times even 24-hour shifts with only two hours’ sleep in between. Fishermen and factory workers are often severely injured and can lose their limbs or lives working with dangerous equipment because of sheer fatigue, yet are not fairly compensated.
What set the 2015 strike apart as a sign that the tide was turning politically was the fact that the workers took action, despite the resistance of the existing union structures. In fact, some union bosses were openly opposed to the workers’ demands, while others soon turned their backs and walked away.
At the start of the strike, it was reported that hundreds marched to the offices of the Namibia Seamen and Allied Workers Union, the Namibia Fishing Industries and Fishermen Workers Union and Namibia Food and Allied Workers Union to demand they stop deducting membership fees from workers’ salaries.
The workers coordinated their fight through their own shop stewards committees. Their independent action demonstrated that the most militant and conscious sections of the working class would no longer be held back by the Swapo-affiliated unions. The fishermen say the refusal to back the workers may be because some unions, through their investment arms, also have a stake in private fishing firms.
Given that none of the major unions came out in support, this left the fishermen somewhat isolated and vulnerable to attacks from the industry and politicians, who benefit from the current arrangement, resulting shortly afterwards in the mass dismissal of over 1,200 workers.
The workers say they will not stand down until they get what they worked for, so that they can rebuild their lives and they are gearing up for the next stage of the fight.