Winner-Takes-All Game Makes Us All Losers
FORMER trade unionist Ranga Haikali been accused of betraying the workers and exploiting them [like a blood-sucking vampire] when he became a businessman.
Once a darling and a top administrator of the Swapo-affiliated National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), Haikali’s company, Africa Personnel Services (APS), and similar businesses have been roundly condemned during debates about the evils of the ‘casual worker’ system and the concept of ‘labour hire’. The blame for “terrible working conditions” and poor pay of the ‘casual workers’ has solely been heaped on them.
The labour-hire business model is that of a middleman. A company like APS gets a number of unemployed people onto its books and goes out to other businesses in turn to re-sell the labour. In cold terms it is not too different from a firm that rents out its concrete mixer and other machinery for a given period at a given price. Thus the labour-hire concept has been reduced to constituting simple abuse and exploitation with no mitigating factors being looked at once trade union leaders and the politicians identified this as a rallying tool for votes.
Some even called it slavery, a comparison to evoke maximum emotion. Blind condemnation led to the total ban of all sorts of ‘labour hire’. Not even professionals who have the capacity to negotiate their pay and perks are allowed to do it. The law, which came into force this week, has decreed that companies that want ‘casual workers’ must hire them directly and on the same terms as their full-time employees.
But nothing in life is that simple – one size does not fit all even if the label promises that. The blanket ban of labour hire will negatively affect companies like APS, their clients, but more so a substantial number of workers.
Some may argue that it is necessary to go through a bloody process to bring about a just system because the rich and powerful do not give up or share their privileges easily. But often the most vulnerable people bear the brunt of sweeping decisions by elites claiming to fight for or against them.
No doubt then that many, if not the majority of the 16 000 Namibians listed as labour-hire employees will lose their source of income.
It is not simply because of greed that companies make use of ‘casual workers’ and that they can simply absorb them from labour-hire firms. The mere administrative burden of keeping a worker on a company’s payroll when the workload fluctuates wildly may determine the survival (or failure) of a business.
Look around the world and you’ll see how blanket bans have priced workers out of the job market. True, general pay of those employed can increase but what happens to many who join the swarms of the unemployed? In a country with high numbers of people without work it would seem better to spend time growing and sharing the cake rather than giving a big portion to a few.
The workers could suffer more now in the absence of the relative stability they had of having piecemeal work. Now they have to be on the lookout for those opportunities themselves. Companies that need casual workers might struggle too.
The blanket outlawing of the labour hire concept will most likely encourage several businesses to get machines to replace people and in the long run cut their wage bill and sidestep worrying about employees. That has been the trend around the world whenever companies felt governments have forced them to employ workers solely on the states’ terms and Namibia will not be spared.
Most importantly, there is every reason to believe that the blanket ban of labour hire will be ineffective. The poor treatment of workers in Namibia has mainly been due to a lack of enforcement of laws.
The criticism of labour hire is that company X would, for example, pay APS N$3 000 per worker while the employee receives only N$1 000. Many security guards, who are “full-time” employees of non-labour-hire companies still get paid far less than what the third party pays to the security firms and sometimes even less than the legal minimum wage.
In short, emotionally driven decisions place us in a zero-sum game and a winner-takes-all approach. But that only makes losers of everyone.