Preying On Low-Wage Workers

THIS is a call to action! An article in The Namibian of Wednesday, 28 May 2014, revealed that “the large numbers of public holidays has cost many domestic workers critical income.”

Reportedly, this is partly due to ignorance of the law on the part of employers and employees alike.

But what the article did not do, is to call it what it is, a ‘wage theft’. Wage theft is a phenomenon widely common throughout the world where employers not only are notoriously known for paying poverty wages to the low-wage service-sector employees but also exploit this already underpaid workforce and cheat them out of their income through dubious means in the payroll systems and questionable employment conditions.

Yes, you heard it right! The perpetrators are their own employers. Ordinarily, between a rich professor and a poor cleaner, a skilful thief would rather opt for the former in the hope of scoring it big. Apparently it is not the case when it comes to some employers because for them the poor-paid workers are a tempting target to steal from.

Therefore, the domestic workers are not alone in not getting compensated properly, but form part of a long list of other low-income earners preyed on by their very own employers. These may include a cleaner who may not have the benefit of a vacation or sick leave. A security guard who may not be compensated properly for risking hisher life guarding our hard earned ‘mullahs’ at the ATMs. A gas station worker who may work erratic hours without proper compensation. Or a temporary employee working without a written contract.

How do I know? Well, you may call it a rogue way of making a conclusion but the evidence is everywhere in our streets, restaurants, hotels, shops, fuel stations, ATMs and even in kambashus. Like a cleaner who told me that she was sick but could not take a day off because she would be fired or not get paid at all. Waiters who confined in me that it is better to be given cash tips rather than credit payment for the fear that they may not get some of their tips (if at all). And there are fuel station workers who also told me that their salaries keep steeping down every month, no matter how many long hours they have worked.

Wage theft takes many forms. It can be direct or indirect. It can also be systematic in the way that it would be almost difficult to uncover. An unscrupulous employer, for example, may simply programme their payroll system in the way that it masks the violations. They may require workers to work late for 10 minutes or more or even demand an employee to show up earlier than the required starting time.

Other employers may simply refuse to compensate workers for all the hours they worked or refuse to pay them for sick or vacation times. They may also deny them lunch breaks, overtime pay or their tips. Most importantly, they may pay the workers poverty wages far below the amount of work and hours the workers are putting in.

Wage theft is more common in private companies and private household employment situations, but let it also be known that the government and parastals are also guilty of this practice. In some cases, the government or parastatals use sub-contractors and then look the other way when those intermediaries rob workers of their wages. As a case study, for that matter, it would not come as a surprise if wage theft is rampant among the contractors and sub-contractors under public works programmes.

Even worse is the realisation that in the blink of an eye many employers can and do get away with wage theft in this country because of a lack of regulations and unenforced labour laws. It is also not uncommon for low-wage workers not to report their employers for the fear of retaliation or getting fired.

We also know that it takes a good and expensive lawyer, a resource most low-paid workers cannot afford, to mount a successful lawsuit against an employer for wages that are rightfully theirs.

What would it take to fight wage theft in this country then? Well-resourced (energised too) ministries of labour and justice. Strict penalties and robust enforcement of regulations and policies may be some of the viable measures to stamp out this exploitative practice.

However, the prevalence of wage theft in Namibia not only points to the deterioration of labour relations, but also worsening inequality in our country. This suggests that Namibia’s capitalism is failing Namibian workers, and, therefore, requiring urgent action to establish a national minimum wage in order to reduce inequality and improve Namibia’s standard of living.

Ndumba J Kamwanyah is a lecturer at Unam in the department of human sciences. His work examines the intersection between policy and governance. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Source : The Namibian