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Namibia: Rumours Rattle Ramatex

Published date:
Friday, 07 April 2006
The Namibian

Fears are intensifying among workers that Namibia's biggest textile manufacturer, Ramatex Textile Factory, plans to scale down operations dramatically, if not shut down its Windhoek operations completely.

Workers are on tenterhooks as reports swirl that as many as 3 000 of them could face retrenchment and that equipment from the factory buildings are being packed into containers and shipped out of the country.

Prime Minister Nahas Angula told The Namibian on Wednesday that the situation was "worrying", but that the factory had to be given the benefit of the doubt.

He said discussions with local Ramatex management at the end of last month had been fruitful, but no indication had been given that the factory planned to either retrench, downscale operations or leave completely.

Ramatex General Manager BK Ong said yesterday that Ramatex directors could arrive in Namibia by the end of the month to engage in discussions with Government, but no date had yet been fixed for their visit.

He vehemently denied that the company planned to close its operations, despite once again reiterating that productivity levels were not up to scratch.

According to Ong, the factory had experienced a 36 per cent drop in exports since 2004.

He claimed that the Windhoek factory had not been able to restore buyer confidence since the International Textile Garment and Leather Federation asked buyers to place more pressure on Ramatex Windhoek to improve its working conditions.

While not categorically ruling out retrenchments, Ong said none were planned for the foreseeable future and these were only rumours.

Blame and fury

"We told workers they must improve their productivity.

Maybe they misunderstood," said Ong.

Ong said it was true that the factory had been shipping out machinery, but said this was "excess" equipment that had been standing idle following the closure of Rhino Garments last April and after having scaled down its garment factories from four to two.

According to Ong, the reduction in operating factories had not affected employees.

What started as a wage dispute last year, has now bubbled over into a situation of mistrust and anger between the parties.

Ramatex workers say the Namibian Food and Allied Workers' Union (Nafau) has not done enough to protect their interests and they no longer want to pay their membership fees.

"For five years, they [Nafau] have done nothing for us," one worker told The Namibian, this week.

"They must stop deducting our money."

'In the dark'

For its part, Nafau says it understands the workers' frustrations but accuses Ramatex of not negotiating in good faith.

Nafau Acting General Secretary Kiros Sackarias said the union was also being kept in the dark over the possible fate of its members.

"We expect it to happen any time, even though we have not been informed," he said this week.

"We are of the view that these rumours will come true sooner rather than later."

After meeting with local managers, Angula extended an invitation to Ramatex's Malaysia-based directors to come to Namibia and discuss its future plans with Government.

He said on Wednesday that he was still awaiting a response.

"We will have to see what we can do to minimise the impact [if there are intentions to leave].

They say the productivity is low, but now we have to look at what the causes are," he said.

Ramatex employs about 4 000 Namibian workers and a further 2 000 foreigners.

"As Government, we want to talk to the owners [of Ramatex].

We want them to play open cards with us.

It is a worrying thing [considering] the number of employees [employed]," he said.

Angula entered the fray over protracted wage negotiations in January after months of negotiations last year between the Nafau and Ramatex management ended in deadlock.

Increase issue

Ramatex workers have not received a wage increase since the factory began operating in Namibia in 2001, despite an agreement with Nafau that it would increase salaries after workers had been employed for three years.

Nafau has been pushing for double the hourly rate, which ranges between N$3 and N$4, with the factory initially offering an increase of only 10 cents on the hourly rate, later upped to 15 cents.

Ramatex said earlier that low productivity and a drop in sales did not allow it to meet workers' demands.

Rhino Garments, an affiliate of Ramatex, shut down hastily a year ago because they were allegedly not receiving enough work.

A workers' representative told The Namibian that workers were even more shocked this week to hear the First Vice President of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), Alpheus Muheua, on the national broadcaster saying the union believed up to 3 000 jobs were at stake.

"They are packing, they are going, now the union is relaxing," claimed one worker.

Sackarias said wage negotiations had reached a stalemate, and had shifted to discussions on productivity.

"There has been no progress.

Negotiations are not going on.

The agenda has now shifted to productivity.

I don't know what that's got to do with it.

It's just another stumbling block," he said.

He confirmed that Ramatex had approached Nafau to discuss productivity levels and said that workers had been asked to call off demands for an increase until October, when the situation would be reviewed.

"It is no secret that these guys want to leave the country.

We as the union want to involve Government so that if we continue to push them, it will not be used as the reason for them not to stay," said Sackarias.

Sackarias said he understood the workers' frustrations with Nafau, but said shop stewards had been present at all meetings and were aware of what the union had been trying to do to improve the working conditions of its members.

The unionist was of the opinion that Government had to take the lead in investigating reports of the factory's impending closure, since it had brought the company to the country and had ostensibly entered into some form of agreement with it.

It is unclear whether Ramatex in fact has any contractual obligations towards Government and the extent of their agreement, if any.

The Namibian however understands that Ramatex has complained that Government has not held up its end of the bargain by adequately training people to work in a textile factory.

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