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Two years of labour pain as pandemic eats away livelihoods

By Dominic Omondi | May 1st 2021
The roundabout along Eastern Bypass next to Windsor Hotel has been converted into an informal market by the middle class rendered jobless by covid-19. [Maxwell Agwanda, Standard]

Labour is the primary means through which human beings nourish their bodies. Thus, says the Bible, ‘those who don’t work should not eat.’

But Apostle Paul is talking about the lazy fellows who want to reap where they did not sow.

After the Covid-19 outbreak, however, millions of breadwinners who had dutifully been reporting to work were plunged into joblessness. For some, their families going for days without meals. And with hunger came anger.

Today, for the second consecutive year, workers globally will mark Labour Day under the shadow of uncertainty occasioned by this pandemic.

The pandemic has spawned an unprecedented labour crisis whose debilitating effects, including heightened poverty rates and other social ills, analysts reckon, will linger on for years.

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli on Friday said while the lockdown imposed by the government resulted in job losses, it was the only thing the State could do to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“Income of organisations have been affected by the lockdown. I know most Kenyans are suffering. But we are safe because of this lockdown,” said Atwoli, adding that the escalation of infections in India was because people still wanted to engage in political campaigns.

The number of unemployed Kenyans stood at 4,637,164 by the end of June, or 10.4 per cent of the total working population compared to an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent in the same period in 2019.

There was a slight improvement three months later as the measures were eased. But still, official data showed that the number of unemployed by the end of September last year had increased by close to 700,000 to 3,256,509 compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2,556,919.

By September, as some of the containment measures were relaxed and the economy began to reboot, the unemployment levels declined to 7.2 per cent. But this was still higher than the pre-pandemic levels.

Unemployment rate might remain this elevated for the remainder of the year after the government announced fresh containment measures due to a third wave of infections that was threatening to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system with increased hospitalisations. New variants, such as that from India, which are affecting even people below 35 years, only add to the uncertainty. 

For the nine months that schools remained closed, close to 227,800 workers in private education had no jobs. Nearly all the workers in the travel agencies were sent on unpaid leave as airplanes remained grounded. Five-star hotels such as Hotel Intercontinental, Norfolk and Radisson Blue have since closed indefinitely.

Bar attendants, waiters, entertainers, pilots, air hostesses, tour operators…. the list of workers that fell victim to the pandemic is endless.

The public sector, whose survival depends on the health of the private sector, has not been spared.

After four years of patiently waiting for a pay hike, State officers will keep waiting for at least another two years to get their cash boom. And that is only for those who will be lucky to avoid the purge that is being orchestrated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This is after the National Treasury decided to withhold close to Sh83 billion in salary increment that the State owes civil servants and teachers, citing depressed tax revenues.

Before then, most of the public servants had neither been retrenched nor subjected to pay cuts.

Months without salaries

It is a double-whammy for some county employees who, besides being denied the pay increment, had also gone for up to four months without salaries.

A pandemic that is forcing people to avoid each other is also accelerating the future of work, with a lot of roles being shrunk into computers and mobile phones aided by fourth industrial revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, block chain and Internet of Things.

According to Abraham Rugo, the country manager for the International Budget Partnership, the shift is permanent.

“And therefore it would mean that we really have to think differently in terms of how then do you facilitate that kind of working environment,” said Rugo.

Increased automation has thrown a lot of players in the labour chain – workers, trade unions and even governments – into a tailspin, with a lot of them unsure on how to fit into the new environment.

But the pandemic is also fundamentally altering the labour market. Working from home and online meetings are increasingly being preferred by some employers. For others, such as those in the banking sector, the restriction of physical contact has seen them move most of their operations online. This will only hasten the end of tellers and cashier jobs as physical branches make for mobile banking, with a lot of transactions being conducted on mobile phones.

The result is what is known as structural unemployment where most workers can’t find work due to changes in the structure of economy.

Studies have shown that online shopping increased by 10 per cent during the pandemic, a significant increase for an area that had generally failed to take-off during the pre-pandemic era.

The nine-month closure of schools might result in a delay in labour getting into the markets. Some of the children dropped out after being impregnated while others started working to help their families. Still, others got into crime.

Quality of skills

But there will also be a problem of the quality of skills being released into the market. Most poor children could not learn from home as they did not have internet.

Unlike in the pre-pandemic times when employees and employers approached the negotiating table hoping that the other party was concealing their true financial position, during the pandemic there is no hiding the fact that a nightclub has been closed.

Citing the tripartite agreement signed by the Labour ministry, the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) and Cotu early last year, Atwoli said employers had the option of either retaining their employees or effecting pay cuts in instances where they were to work in shifts.

And in the sectors that experienced total shutdown, the employers were to go on unpaid leave and resume when operations resume.

But the pandemic has hastened the shift from the so-called permanent and pensionable work, said FKE Chief Executive Officer Jacqueline Mugo, which was already happening even before the pandemic.

Moreover, for a lot of companies, there has been a sharp reduction in working hours, which is lowering productivity and making people work very intensively, said Mugo.

She said some employees are getting stressed as they do not have the normal human contact.

“I think we underestimated the unstated support that you get from working in a team, in a fixed location. It is not there.”

The pandemic has also raised tension between government and employers on the one hand and trade unions on the other.

For the government, it has been very difficult for State employees to accept that they cannot get a salary increment. And understandably so, the government has not closed shop. Unfortunately, a night club, a source of revenue (income tax, excise and valued added tax) is no longer there.

“We need to understand and appreciate that the general economy is not doing well. A number of businesses that are still operational have scaled down their activities and in some cases laid off workers,” said National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani in a letter to the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) when he refused to release Sh83 billion that the government owed public servants as a result of previous collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).

Most union leaders, of course, did not accept this excuse. They insisted that taxes continued to be paid. Moreover, they argued, the government had a lot of that continue to be stolen and wasted in non-essential expenditures.  

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