Why we should stand with the striking retail workers

Despite their best efforts to smile and hide their frustration, many of us would have noticed the exhaustion and despair in the eyes of the super-exploited cashiers that serve us in the supermarkets.

In 2018, Shoprite sued 93 of its workers for taking strike action over low wages. Photo The Namibian

The workers’ despair generally stems from their poor working conditions and is one of the reasons why the decision by the workers of Shoprite, Checkers and U-Save to embark on strike action for better wages and improved working conditions should be supported by the wider community.

The rise of Covid19 in 2020 has shown beyond doubt that these underpaid and undervalued workers are in fact essential to the survival of society. The pandemic proved that cashiers, shop-floor workers, packers, drivers and cleaners are absolutely essential, whereas their highly paid CEOs, accountants and lawyers could happily stay at home, as their work is not essential.

In fact, these highly paid bosses and their coterie of managers, accountants and lawyers often play a somewhat parasitic role in the production process by merely skimming off the profits. And yet, they pay their workers who deliver essential services so little that the workers can hardly cope with cost of living.

In this context it was shocking to hear that former vice-chairman of Shoprite Whitey Basson was paid N$100 million in 2016, while the current CEO earns around N$60,000 per day. It would take the average Shoprite worker — who earns under N$2,000 a month — at least 30 months to earn what their CEO gets paid in one day.

In another example of the rising gap between top earners and their workers, the CEO of Clicks, for example, in 2018 earned a jaw-dropping amount of N$190,950 per day to make up an annual salary package of N$69.7 million. If — as stated in recent reports — the average Clicks cashier earns around N$54,000 per year, it would take them at least 1,290 years to earn what their boss gets per year.

RISING INEQUALITY

It is necessary to look at the underlying trends. A recent study by Prof José Gabriel Palma of Cambridge University showed that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, followed closely by Namibia. Palma’s research showed that — contrary to expectation — inequality actually rose in these countries after the end of apartheid and the colonial occupation of Namibia.

Palma shows that inequality in these two countries is literally “off the charts”.

A 2015 study by Oxfam showed that in SA, for example, the richest two people (Oppenheimer and Rupert) have more assets than the poorest half of the population, 26.5 million people. The irony is that the national liberation movements in power have allowed inequality to rise to unprecedented levels — to even greater heights than under the brutal apartheid system.

Further research published by Oxfam in 2020 showed that SA retained the top spot as the most unequal country.

Meanwhile, the threat and terror of unemployment is used by companies to blackmail workers into accepting the lowest pay and terms of employment.

NBC reported last week that some retail companies affected by the strike have now started using casual workers to replace the strikers, despite the fact that Section 76 of the Labour Act expressly prohibits this. Will this government allow the SA retailers to break the law without consequence?

One of the main reasons for falling wage levels and the deteriorating living standards of Namibian workers is the weakness of the labour movement, mainly due to the role of the Swapo-affiliated unions, and the reluctance of the union bosses to engage in struggle.

The resistance of the retail workers seems to have compelled their union to come out and fight. But the fight is far from won.

All indications are that in view of falling living standards and the steady loss of buying power due to price inflation and wage stagnation, the working class is under constant attack and cannot retreat much further.

The workers of Shoprite, Checkers, and U-Save have shown the way forward and the public should support them, because they are our brothers and sisters. Their fight is also our fight.

By standing together in solidarity with these workers on the frontline, we can help to ensure that they are not isolated and defeated by the bosses, and we can send a strong message that we will not tolerate the abuse and super-exploitation of our fellow countrymen and women.

That’s why we should all heed the call by the Economic and Social Justice Trust to rally behind the striking retail workers by backing the call for a nationwide boycott of these errant SA supermarket chains until they come back to the negotiating table and comply with the demands of the workers for a fair living wage.

Writer, reporter, activist