Ramatex On Rack Again
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December 17, 2003
Posted to the web December 17, 2003
MALAYSIAN-RUN textile factory Ramatex is once again being accused of unfair labour practices - this time by several hundred of its Asian workers.
Filipino workers feel so strongly about their working conditions that they have sent an appeal to their government through its South African embassy.
A petition signed by nearly 700 employees cites poor wages, cramped living conditions and health concerns as their most pressing grievances.
Their concerns peaked last week, when at least two employees were forced to return to the Philippines after being declared sick and unfit to work, assertions they dispute.
A group of about five were told by the company nurse that they had contracted hepatitis C - a viral infection of the liver.
A source told The Namibian that a manager told employees they had to stop work immediately, their work contracts were being cancelled and they would be sent home.
About 2 000 Asians, mostly Chinese and Filipinos, work at the garment factories in Otjomuise on the outskirts of Windhoek.
In the past, labour disputes involving the factory have centred largely on Namibian workers.
The factory runs separate human resource departments for its Namibian and foreign employees.
Most of Ramatex Namibia's Asian workers are recruited abroad.
They have to undergo medical examinations declaring them fit for work before they can be employed in Namibia.
Before coming here, they must sign work contracts valid for at least three years.
Now the disgruntled workers believe the company is in breach of these agreements.
Some of the workers who were told they had tested positive for hepatitis C queried the diagnosis, saying they were given a clean bill of health (one of them only four months ago) before coming to Namibia.
Hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted through exposure to infected blood or intravenous drug use.
Often patients have such mild symptoms that they are unaware that they may be ill.
The Namibian has seen the pathology report of an employee who was re-tested after being told to return home.
It shows a positive result for the presence of the hepatitis C antibody - meaning that the patient may have been previously exposed to the disease but is not currently infected.
The test is negative for the hepatitis C antigen - which would indicate the presence of the disease.
An accompanying certificate from the examining medical practitioner reads: "I examined the above-mentioned patient today [who] is in good health and has no acute or chronic disease. Hepatitis antibodies were taken".
Sources indicated to The Namibian that the group were made to foot the bill for the pathology tests even though their work contracts stated that the company would shoulder their medical costs.
Although Ramatex paid for their airfares home, the workers have apparently not been compensated for termination of their work contracts.
Responding to inquiries on the matter, a senior factory manager, Yee Siong-chua, confirmed from Malaysia yesterday that Ramatex had decided employees who tested positive for hepatitis C would be sent home at company cost.
But, in a terse written reply, Chua added: "Under our contract, the company will not bear the medical cost for employees who contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD), e.g. hepatitis or venereal [disease]".
Hepatitis C is not typically classified as an STD.
Transmission through casual contact with the infected person or through sexual intercourse have been shown to be rare.
Other employees affected by the decision have been off work since being told they would be sent home but are still awaiting details of their proposed repatriation.
This latest incident is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hundreds of other workers are petitioning their government with grievances about their treatment by Ramatex.
Most of them live in very cramped conditions in hostels custom-built to accommodate them.
Many of the workers fear these living conditions could expose them to contagious diseases.
The living quarters are believed to house up to eight people to a single room.
In their petition the employees express concern about the health standards at the canteens where their food is prepared, saying they could be to blame for some of their illnesses.
On this point, Chua's only comment was: "The health standard of the canteen is in accordance with the local statute standard".
The factory is silent on the living arrangements for most of its Asian workers in Ramatex factory premises.
The dissatisfied group are also appealing to their government to explore salary-related matters.
They are unhappy with their monthly basic wage of US$200, which most say they receive in Namibian currency.
With fluctuations in the exchange rate, those workers say, it leaves them with N$1 400 or so - not enough for them to live on, according to the petition.
This is especially so, they add, in light of their liability for any medical costs they incur.
But the company says it it cannot be liable for fluctuations in their wages as a result of economic developments.
"Employees have the option to be paid in USD or NAD. The company cannot bear the forex lost on behalf of workers," says the factory.