By FRANKLINE SUNDAY
Kenya: For most Kenyan workers, the fight for improved working conditions and wages commensurate to prevailing economic realities has been a decades-long battle.
The drive to get more compensation for hard work has played out in the form of boardroom arguments by over-zealous union leaders and often through angry street protests.
For minimum wage workers in particular, justice in the workplace has long remained an elusive dream especially for those working in private industries that restrict employees from joining labour unions.
These workers, who are often casual employees, have come to conform to the notion that their presence at their working stations is dependent on the goodwill of their supervisors and that they are dispensable.
The situation was not any different in 1983 in the coastal city of Mombasa. On this day, three decades ago, employees in several private firms found themselves facing abrupt layoffs as their respective companies were headed for the auction block.
The then assistant minister for Finance and Mombasa Central MP, the late Shariff Nassir took to the defence of the hapless workers. He said the workers were being unfairly sacrificed by their employers who were looking for easy avenues to cut costs.
He further said this was a ploy by the employers to avoid paying retirement benefits to long serving employees by sacking them on the basis of redundancy.
“The industrialists want to close down their factories so that they can get rid of long-serving employees who are about to retire and get the retirement benefits,” he said. “Such factories only close for a short period of time before they resume their operations and the Government will take severe action against any industrialist who does not treat their workers fairly.”
Despite this declaration by Nassir being repeated over the past 30 years by successive Labour ministry officials, the minimum wage workers find little cause to celebrate.
With the cost of living and unemployment having increased exponentially over the past few years, the number of working poor and underemployed Kenyans today is higher than it has ever been in any other period in our history.
The slide in the welfare of Kenyan workers has coincided with the fall from grace of Kenyan trade unions that at one point enjoyed a clout bigger than the civil society and only second to the Church.
Today, trade unions have become a pale shadow of what they ought to be and few union leaders can lay claim to having half the influence wielded by the late Tom Mboya, a trade union icon.
The interest groups are being blamed for not only being complacent in the face of labour injustices meted out on their members, but also having an active hand in causing the current plight of Kenyan employees.
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The leadership of the trade unions has been singled out with union leaders being blamed for calling industrial action or agitating for collective bargaining agreements that are not informed by adequate information on the labour market.
Last year, doctors, nurses and lecturers all downed their tools at different points in time to agitate for better pay.
Kenyans were later treated to a spectacle of power games, as officials of the Kenya National Union of Teachers locked horns with the Ministry of Education for more than three weeks.
This was the longest time in more than 20 years that teachers had stayed out of class with students paying the ultimate price in disruption of their education.
The Central Organisation of Trade Unions leader Francis Atwoli has rubbed Kenyans the wrong way by going on record to support calls by Members of Parliament to increase their salaries.
The MPs, who two days ago moved a Motion to quash a gazette notice by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to review their perks downward, have been criticised for being insensitive to the economic situation.
Atwoli has thus been considered as failing in his mandate to protect the rights of poor workers and instead supporting the greed of MPs.
While workers in the public sector have the option of labour unions to turn to, those who work in the private firms and industries that do not recognise trade unions find themselves at a disadvantage.
Such employees are often victimised if they try to ask for better working conditions or more remuneration through summary dismissals or demotions.
Today, Kenya faces a difficult task in harmonising its labour policies to ensure both employers and employees benefit.
Perennial strikes in the public sector will lead to a bloated wage bill, which translates to more recurrent expenditure and possible tax hikes for mwananchi.
In the private sector, collective bargaining agreements that are untenable will lead to high labour costs in the market; a dis-incentive to investors.
The Government, trade unions and employers need to strike a balance in labour policies to ensure labour costs come down and at the same time the welfare and standard of living for poor workers improves.