In June 2022, Jane Masta – Organizer for East and Southern Africa – and Margarida Teixeira – Communication and Media Manager – conducted a field visit in Windhoek, Namibia, to understand the current context for labor rights in Namibia and the work of our affiliate Namibia Informal, Domestic & Allied Workers’ Union (NIDAWU), in cooperation with the national Trade Union federation, Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA).
Cooperation between trade unions and informal economy workers
It is estimated that up to 63% of workers in Namibia are informally employed. Because of the importance of the informal economy to labor rights in the country, the Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA) was one of the main proponents and supporters of the creation of NIDAWU, with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation. Since the founding Congress of the organization, TUCNA has continued to support its members and leadership. It is through TUCNA that informal traders often discover NIDAWU, according to young trader Ms. Abia Shingwedha:
“I was always hearing about unions and I knew about this trade union federation, TUCNA, so I went to find out to see how I could be protected. And I was lucky to find that there was a union for informal economy workers”. She adds that, as a young member of a trade union affiliated to TUCNA, she has also become involved in TUCNA’s activities for youth and women workers. Although Namibia has become one of the first countries to ratify ILO Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment on the World of Work, women and youth representatives of TUCNA know there is still a lot to be done, for both formally and informally employed workers.
However, the impact of COVID-19 and financial instability have proved difficult challenges for NIDAWU.
“Currently, TUCNA is in charge of representing informal economy workers until there is a transition arrangement.” explained Secretary-General Mr. Kavihua Mahongora. They are also encouraging trade unions of informal economy workers that they work with to come together.
There are now three trade unions of informal economy workers in Namibia: NIDAWU; Oruuano, a union for artists; and the Namibia Informal Traders and Shebeen Workers Union. TUCNA as well as Mrs. Shingwedha hopes that they can join efforts and perhaps formally integrate into NIDAWU in its future Congress.
Access to social protection as a main priority
In Namibia, informal economy workers do not have access to social protection. As the Secretary-General of the Public Services Union of Namibia, Mr. Matthew Haakuria Ndjizuvee, explains, “the Social Security Act does not recognize own account workers as workers”. In his view, it would also be important for the Constitution of Namibia to recognize social protection as a right.
The Social Security Commission is in favor of including informal economy workers and is available to work and even fund projects that might lead to more inclusive social protection schemes, through its Development Fund. On August 12, Namibia’s national Social Security Day, they are even planning actions directly targeting informal economy workers. However, as Mrs. Unomengi Kauapirura, Senior Manager of Communication & Marketing, stated, workers need to organize and develop schemes which can allow them to both contribute and collect social security benefits.
The Ministry of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment Creation is also looking into ways to better integrate informal economy workers. In the tripartite Labour Advisory Council, of which TUCNA is a member representing workers, a committee has been created to work on ILO Recommendation 204. According to the Acting Executive Director of the Ministry of Labor, Mrs. Balbina Daes Pienaar, Namibia is fully committed to the implementation of R204.
However, policies during the pandemic were not accommodating of informal economy workers. Mrs. Kudzkai Clara Chireka, Senior Researcher of the Labour Resource and Research Institute, refers to their own research regarding the impact of COVID-19 in Namibian workers. As markets were forced to close down, informal traders stopped having a source of income. At the same time, workers were then forced to access only supermarkets for food, where goods are often much more expensive and where the health benefits were unclear. “We have been trying to engage with policy makers because the environment is not conducive for informal economy workers’ wellbeing”, explains Mrs. Kudzkai.
The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation in Namibia is also focusing on social protection for informal economy workers. Along with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia and the Social Security Commission (SSC), they currently have a Forum of Experts on Social Protection to promote national dialogue and debate. They also co-developed a Code of Conduct for the Namibian Informal Economy with the Namibia Informal Sector Organization, NISO which is an organisation registered under the Ministry of Trade. “We understand as one of our major tasks to look into the plight of informal economy workers and look for solutions to their situation”, states Country Director Freya Grinhagen.
Bad working conditions and challenges to cross borders – an informal trader’s perspective
While in Windhoek, StreetNet along with TUCNA visited markets in the Katutura township. In the Tukolondjeni market, we discussed with some of the traders – mostly women – who shared their concerns about the lack of decent working conditions and access to social security benefits.
Many of the traders originated from Angola and engage in cross-border trade. One of them, Sara Ngumba, explained that she is often asked for additional paperwork when crossing the border and that regulations are made for large scale traders, and not small informal economy traders such as herself. However, as a business enthusiast, her main concern is the conditions of the Tukolondjeni market. She believes the market should have toilets, access to water and other facilities, so it can be more hygienic and be a more comfortable experience for customers.
Sara herself is a university graduate, but she turned to the informal economy to make a living. She is not ashamed she had to make that choice, stating, “If you know how to manage your work, you can go far, you can feed your family, you can even go to further study, because there is nowhere where people are not doing business. And I am proud of what I do because I do it with love”.
A future full of possibilities for Namibian informal economy workers
After three days discovering the labor rights context in Namibia, we are confident that informal economy workers have many eager potential partners to collaborate with. From research organizations to government officers, the informal economy is rising on Namibia’s agenda. With the support of TUCNA, we expect NIDAWU to grow and reassert itself as the voice for informal economy workers in Namibia.
See our Flickr album for pictures of field visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146860473@N02/albums/72177720300482717
See video report of field visit: