Why Labour Day no longer excites workers as it used to

President William Ruto and COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli during Labour Day celebrations, May 1, 2024. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Kenyan workers celebrated Labour Day last week with a number of expectations amid the high cost of living, inflation, floods, doctors and clinical officers' strike, and a fake fertilisers scandal.

This day is set aside for workers and their leaders to reflect on their work, work environment and to place demands to employers and government that would help them meet their expectations.

This year’s celebrations came at a time when the labour movement is threatened with several pronouncements from senior government representatives that, when implemented, are likely to lead to a serious paradigm shift from the current work and work environment in Kenya. The proposal by Cabinet Secretary for Public Service, for instance, to have all government workers hired on contract is strange and scaring.

All public servants, including teachers, are placed on performance contracting, which is basically biased towards enhancing performance so that we can get value for money.

Teachers have been going through performance appraisals and the feedback from the exercise is used to improve output. This is good but it is totally different from CS Moses Kuria’s proposal that has no legal framework.

The proposal to have all workers retire at 55 years is bad. Workers used to retire at 55 years until 2013 when the government extended the retirement age to 60 years. The proposal was met with resistance since many teachers, unfortunately, passed on between 55 and 60 years and therefore ended up losing their benefits.

Some analysts attributed the extension to lack of government preparedness to handle the large numbers that were retiring; government did not have money to pay the pension of the retirees who were coming out in large numbers.

Now, after around 10 years, when workers are used to retiring at 60 years, there is a sudden change of tune. It is not clear what the reason could be this time round. Some say retiring workers at age 55 years would create job opportunities for young citizens. This is highly suspect, unfortunate and backward to say the least. Knut does not support this proposal.

The court ruling on the matter of intern teachers is talk of town. An intern’s definition doesn’t fit a teacher. The men and women employed in the teaching profession are in no way interns, they are trained, qualified and certified professionals. They therefore shouldn’t in the first place be called interns.

Section 5(3) (a) of the Employment Act 2007 read together with Article 27(4) of the Kenya Constitution 2010 provides that the State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, paying these teachers differently from the rest is discriminative and unconstitutional.

Our country is experiencing very devastating effects in the health sector with doctors and clinical officers out on the streets because a CBA signed between them and the employer was not honoured.

Failing to honour a CBA is a threat to the future CBAs that may be entered with any other entity. An injury to one sector in the labour sector is an injury to all. You remember the Martin Niemöller analogy? They first came for the Jews…

Traditionally, on Labour Day, workers expect a declaration of an increase in the minimum wage by a given percentage, and this year the head of state proposed six per cent. This is slowly but steadily fading away because it only affects a specific group of workers, especially in the non-formal work sector.

With the advent of a collective bargaining framework, workers through their representatives are encouraged to negotiate for salary and other remunerable emoluments.

So in as much as we welcome and appreciate the President’s spirit during Labour Day, it must follow the established negotiations framework recognised by both local and international labour laws.

Article 230 of the Constitution, which gives powers to Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) to advice on salaries of all State officers and public workers, has brought in a unique way of determining the salaries of workers.

Unions are of the opinion that SRC has usurped their powers and terribly encroached on the CBA framework. Bipartite engagements between employers and employee’s representatives is turning into just a consultation that must be guided by SRC.

It must be remembered that every Labour Day has been a day for workers to expect a message of hope that would change their lives. This has not been the case in the recent past.

This year, workers expected that the government would have declared a general wage increment, that the aspect of several pronouncements made by Cabinet secretaries concerning retirement and employment terms and conditions would have been mentioned.

Workers expected to hear something concerning court orders and workers' court cases, especially on implementation of existing CBAs, which gives strength to the existence of trade unions in representing workers.

Labour Day should not be adulterated since by doing that, it may end up losing its meaning. This day should be used to motivate workers and allow their representatives (trade unions) to do their work.

Labour Day celebrations should be about correcting wrongs in the labour sector publicly. When this is done, Labour Day will have meaning and workers will be happy.