News and Views on Africa from Africa
Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
Subscribe to our RSS feed
RSS logo

Latest news


Labour movement sinks to an abyss

The Kenya African National Union (KANU) that has for years been accused of stifling the labour movement in the country is gone. But there is no indication that things have changed for the better, even with a new government in power.
Fred Oluoch

That the labour movement in Kenya in its current form has lost its previous sparkle is not in doubt, the question is who or what is responsible. Opinions vary from the triumph of the market-driven capitalism over communism to sustained economic downturn, technological advancement leading to the decline in the labour-intensive methods of production, increased political interference and the government’s indifference to labour issues, to the evident lethargic leadership within the labour movement itself.

The beleaguered labour movement, union umbrella body, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) held its elections in September 2000, in a move observers thought could inject more life into the lackluster trade union movement. But the event, that used to command considerable attention from the entire business community, the government and politicians, will this time be held against the background of a marked indifference from virtually every sector.

Francis Atwoli, who took over the leadership from the long-serving Joseph Mugalla, insists that “COTU is back on its feet after being run-down for years". Many observers are however not convinced that the labour movement has come out of the rut, rather it is getting more toothless. Of great concern, is that Kenyan labour laws are archaic, and unless they are changed to blend with the new order in global labour movement, the Kenyan labour movement can only continue to experience a downward trend.

As it is, the current labour laws still smack of the colonial days. Workers put in long hours, with little pay and a very complicated mechanism of seeking compensation for work-related injuries or wrongful dismissal, mostly for belonging to the union. Then there are greedy union leaders who are easily compromised by unscrupulous employers.

Hopes that NARC was going to create a conducive environment for the resuscitation of the labour

movement, seem to have been abandoned, with the government still condoning those employers who prevent their workers from joining trade unions .This happens despite Kenya being

a signatory to various international treaties and conventions, which bind it to promoting the rights of workers.

The lacklustre performance of unions has given room for the civil society to engage in labour issues as part of their duty as human rights watchdog. While unions are warning non governmental organisations to keep off, the NGOs insist that workers' right is their

responsibility. They feel they cannot just sit back and watch as workers are subjected to dehumanising and exploitative conditions.

As a result, US$11924,000million was lost due to a series of strike in early 2003 at the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), an event that was blamed on incitement by the NGOs. Most factory workers are underpaid, work for long hours under unhygienic conditions, and yet the labour

movement feel threatened that the civil society could be encroaching on their turf.

Labour minister Ali Makwere, is on record conceding that "workers will continue to be exploited

as long as archaic labour laws remain in place", an admission that COTU has failed to push for the reform of archaic and repressive laws.

Even the proposed new laws­a result a task force appointed in 2001­ are seen to be pro-employers contrary to the worker-friendly legislation. Industry observers attribute it to the successive decline of the labour movement in the last decade owing to the obsession by the labour leadership to value political patronage from the then governing party KANU at the expense of workers. This is a major departure given that the labour movement in Kenya is historically associated with the freedom struggle and an important component of African nationalism.

Notably, Kenya's independence struggle owes a lot to the labour movement for having produced some astute agitators and negotiators such as the late Tom Mboya. It was a vehicle through which indigenous Kenyans articulated their burning aspiration for self-determination and independence.

But the movement has never known peace after independence in 1963 as successive governments were eager to meddle in labour affairs with the ultimate aim of control, given hat some of those who had taken over the reigns of power were clearly aware of the potency of a vibrant and independent labour movement.

With the labour movement having held its second elections since the introduction of political

pluralism in the early 1990s, economists argue that the 40-year old Kenya is currently in its worst

employment crisis since its independence from the British in 1963. Thousands of workers are being retrenched or arbitrarily sacked in both the public and private sector, as trade unions that have evidently lost their influence, resort to occasional feeble noises regarding the plight of Kenyan workers.

Since July 2000, the Kenya government, amidst stiff opposition from trade unions, has been implementing the four-phase retrenchment programme to shed off 30 per cent of its bloated workforce as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank

to the chagrin of the labour movement who are otherwise in no position to intervene.

The government, through the donor-backed Public Sector Reform Programme, was supposed to retrench 25,000 civil servants and shall have laid off a total of 42,000 by the beginning fn next year. The programme will cost US$99 million and is expected to save the government US$38

million annually

Likewise, the hard-hit private sector owing to difficult business environment has followed suit where thousands of workers are being retrenched or laid off arbitrarily. A total of 120 firms in the private sector have folded in the last few years citing high taxation, poor infrastructure and insecurity, while close to 100 have been placed under receivership.

The latest phenomenon is that a good number of multinationals have decided to move their

manufacturing units to other countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) trade bloc leaving hundreds jobless. This has been occasioned by Free Trade Area (FTA) that enables multinationals to manufacture anywhere within the COMESA countries and export to Kenya taking advantage of the zero tariff. It is estimated that 20,000 Kenyans lose their jobs annually.

Thus, COTU is currently reeling under the effect of reduced membership and equally diminished credibility to speak on behalf of workers. COTU, which has 29 affiliated member unions, recently conceded that its operations have been severely curtailed due to cash flow problems.

The organization currently receives only US$13,000 in monthly remittance, down from US$57,000 netted the previous years. Worse for COTU, the giant 260,000-member Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), is not an affiliate of the umbrella body, an event critics see as the reason why KNUT remains the most effective trade union in Kenya.

Yet, beside the economic slump, COTU officials trace their woes to the Kanu government that they accused of not only being averse to union activities, but has the knack of bowing to IMF and World Bank conditionalities without caring for the spiralling effect on the labour force, plus failing to incorporate the labour movement in key economic decisions by virtue of being a partner in economic development.

Though the Trade Disputes Act still requires employers to hold discussions with respective trade

unions and labour officers on the terms of redundancy, this hardly happens as employers decide the nature and the size of their workforce at will, hence the frequent layoffs and the influx of unskilled foreign labour mainly from the Indian sub-continent.

As it is, the "rescue" of the labour movement could most likely come from outside rather than a deliberate effort by the unionists themselves to make a difference. In 2000, the US government made it plain to the Kenyan government that it must de-link itself from COTU if Kenya were to benefit from the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), that enables exports from Kenya and other African countries to penetrate the competitive US market.

Then in June the same year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), threatened to blacklist Kenya if the government is not ready to allow the labour movement to operate freely and independently. It also demanded the revival of the proscribed Civil Servants' Union(that has since been revived) The organization was banned in 1980 during the single party era, when the government sought to muzzle all organizations that exhibited the potential of promoting disaffection against the government.

Then there is the ongoing tussle between COTU and the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE), over the proposed Industrial Court of Appeal (ICA). FKE supports the establishment of ICA on grounds that the poor state of the economy cannot sustain some of the awards handed out by the Industrial Court, and that some of the awards may force some employers to close shop, resulting in further unemployment.

FKE also argue that the spirit of negotiation is increasingly being eroded as workers and their representatives rush to court before exhausting other avenues with the belief that they will get a better deal.

The labour movement on the other hand is opposed to the move that it would further bog down the already cumbersome collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and that labour disputes will be allowed to drag on for years as employers seek to have the awards overruled or reduced. The idea of the Industrial Court of Appeal has been forwarded to the government through the ministry of labour seeking to amend the Trade Disputes Act.

Yet, both parties concur that delays in settlement of trade disputes do not augur well for industrial

harmony. With only two presiding judges, the Industrial Court that was established in 1965, two

years after Kenya's independence, normally has a backlog of cases since a single suit can drag on for months or even years, while some workers are likely to be retrenched or die before the settlement.

Contact the editor by clicking here Editor