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State should handle doctors' strike with caution

By Dr Mercy Korir | January 26th 2017

Strikes are not new in Kenya and the world at large.

They date back to the origins of modern wage labour, during the European Industrial Revolution (1750 – 1850).

Strikes began as protests against poor wages and bad working conditions.

However, powerful industrial capitalists quickly outlawed them. Governments, usually expected to be independent arbitrators, often failed in this role.

Strikes have nonetheless pressured governments to formulate labour-friendly policies. The intractable Kenyan doctors’ strike over a 2013 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a good lesson on how not to handle industrial unrest.

The authorities don’t even seem to know that strikes destabilise governments. One notable example in modern times was in Poland, where in the 1980s the Lech Wa??sa-led Gda?sk led to total collapse of government.

Walesa eventually became not only a Nobel Laureate, but also the second President of Poland. These strikes were significant in political change in Poland.

Kenyan trade unionism dates back to the 1930s. A strike by the African Workers’ Federation in Mombasa in 1947 placed the country on the path to strikes as a method of industrial redress. Its leader, Chege Kebachia, was arrested and deported to the then Northern Province of Kenya. Consequently, the union collapsed. Back then, arrests and detention of union leaders on allegations of being associates of Mau Mau were the norm.

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These were aimed at weakening unionism. Yet, miraculously, unionism survived.

Fast forward to the Constitution of Kenya 2010, Article 41 on labour relations.

Every person has a right to a fair remuneration, the constitution says. It also gives the right to reasonable working conditions and to trade unions.

Finally it protects the right to go on strike. It is from here that the doctors formed the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) that called its first strike on December 5, 2011.

Even before this, however, doctors have for long agitated for better working conditions and wages. In 1994 they went on strike for 105 days.

The doctors’ strike, now in its 53rd day, has led to death and suffering. At every turn has been a blame game between the doctors’ union and the Government.

If not well managed, this strike could become the last straw that breaks the Kenyan camel’s back in this election year, should the civil society and other Kenyans be enjoined in seeking accountability from a seemingly callous and often venal Government.

All tactics in the Government’s rulebook on how to manage a strike, draconian as they are in this 21st century, have been exhausted. The State’s tactics have largely looked as if they only aimed at frustrating the medics.

Threats to sack them, withdrawal of salaries and seeking doctors from offshore have all failed. The last card is to jail union officials. And yet this could just be the spark that will galvanise the nation against a reprobate regime.

If jailed, the officials will set a precedent as the first time unionists are incarcerated under the new constitution. The jailing will also redefine how other unions will engage with employers.

This action could also plunge the fate of negotiations and the strike into murky waters.

The union officials have been categorical that no talks will continue if their colleagues are in jail.

If the top brass of the union is in jail, a ‘Caretaker Committee’ of the doctors’ union comprising the remaining national executive council members – Dr Richard Mogeni, Dr Dennis Miskellah, Dr Wesley Ooga, Dr Allan Makokha, and the top branch leadership. Dr Richard Mogeni, will take over leadership of this committee. What follows is anyone’s guess.

Ms Korir is a medical doctor

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