February 7, 2005

Pressure mounts on textile factory after labour violations

A number of major international garment buyers are calling for action against the Ramatex Textile Factory in Windhoek, as pressure mounts on the Malaysian outfit to "clean up its act". In the last two weeks the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF) has written not only to President Sam Nujoma and the Ministers of Trade and Industry and Labour, but to US stores Sears, Kmart, ShopKo, OshKosh B'Gosh Inc and Children's Place. Ramatex is under fire over its continued violations of the country's labour law, and its disregard of its recognition agreement with the Namibian Food and Allied Workers Union (Nafau). The ITGLWF received a three-page response from President Nujoma in which he said Government was doing all it could to ensure workers' rights are upheld. He pleaded with the ITGLWF not to take further action against the Malaysian company, which would also affect the Namibian economy. President Nujoma promised that Government would deal with the issues, saying they were not "insurmountable".

So far at least 10 international buyers are calling for action because of the ill-treatment of the factory's 8.000-strong workforce. "The situation is largely getting to one where we would begin to label Ramatex as a dirty company," ITGLWF General Secretary Neil Kearney explained. "It is totally unacceptable the way they treat their employees. We want to see buyers combine their energy to put pressure on Ramatex to begin to deal decently with those they employ." In it the ITGLWF brings to his attention several incidents of Ramatex's poor treatment of workers. These include strikes by Namibian workers, conditions under which Asian workers come to Namibia, the deportation of more than 400 Bangladeshis last year and poor wages, working hours and annual leave of its workforce. The ITGLWF is a global union federation bringing together 220 affiliated organisations in 110 countries with a combined membership of 10 million.

Kearney said some major buyers were already aware of the situation, and he had received confirmation from those who had visited the factory recently that the situation was indeed "serious and that problems do exist". Representatives from ShopKo had already visited the factory; ShopKo has more than 360 branches in 23 states across the US. Buyers typically visit the factory at least twice a year to inspect production facilities, the general work and safety environment of the company.

Ramatex had also entered into talks with Nafau and Government officials to iron out concerns about the treatment of its workers and the recognition agreement entered into with the union more than two years ago. Nafau General Secretary Kiros Sakarias would only say that last week's encounter had been "fruitful". "Whatever has happened has happened. It is not a secret that Ramatex exploits our people. We discussed our issues, we resolved some issues. We hope things will go better," he said. Kearney said numerous attempts to enter into dialogue with the Ramatex management, both in Namibia and at its headquarters in Malaysia, had proved futile, and hence the decision to take their action one step further. "We have not had, in recent times, a response at all," said Kearney.

"It is a very serious situation with Ramatex and not one that at the international level, [we] are going to let rest," said Kearney. He said the ITGLWF preferred that such issues be resolved at the local level between the employer, unions and, if necessary, Government, but this had not had any significant impact in the case of Ramatex so far. "We've gone through all the stages that we follow - going to the company at local and then at national level, repeatedly on different occasions. We now realise that the company is not taking the action to overcome the problems, or not doing anything at all. We've seen no movement by Ramatex in Namibia to deal with the very serious issues not only of Namibian, but also foreign workers," said Kearney. He stressed that it was not the ITGLWF's intention to get buyers to boycott purchasing from the factory, but hoped that collectively they would take whatever action necessary to get the factory to behave appropriately. "I hate to see times like this. But hopefully it will result in some action," he said. (The Namibian, Windhoek)

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