Negotiate to avert strike over contentions on NHIF rates

The country could be headed for a prolonged period of industrial unrest if the Trade Union Congress of Kenya (TUC-K) makes good its threat and leads its members on a nationwide strike starting July 1.

The union, representing civil servants, has already issued a seven-day strike notice as required by law and demanded that the Government revokes a legal notice legitimising the deduction of the new but controversial National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) rates.

TUC-K has insisted that the new statutory rates, which took effect in April 1, are unconstitutional and demanded that the government refunds what it has already deducted from civil servants’ salaries even though the funds deducted are supposed to help lower paid workers gain access to medical treatment in public and private hospitals .

The implementation of the new NHIF rates has not been without controversy since the gazette notice was issued on February 6. Other stakeholders, such as teachers, have also opposed the deduction beyond the Sh320 that was previously subtracted from their salaries. Under the new payment regime introduced recently, workers have been paying between Sh150 and Sh1,700 depending on how much they earn. The Federation of Kenya Employers has previously expressed its misgivings about the review of the NHIF rates and stated that consultations during the proposal phase would have left less room for misunderstanding given that its members have invested heavily in obtaining health insurance cover for their staff from the private sector.

Others have complained that under the new arrangement, civil servants will be required to seek treatment in some of the larger public hospitals, yet the medical services provided by these hospitals have not markedly improved.

TUC-K says the new rates were introduced by the government without adequate consultation with workers. But the proposed strike is not just about the new NHIF rates. TUC-K has opposed the job evaluation being conducted by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), and says this function is not within the commission’s mandate. It says this job evaluation exercise must stop for the strike to be averted. It is not just TUC-K which is opposed to the SRC job evaluation exercise — the Kenya Universities Staff Union has also said it is unfair for the government to impose a job evaluation process that affects only particular cadres of civil servants.

The union said some state officers—such as Members of Parliament and ward representatives in counties— have been left out of the exercise that determines the level of salary increments and regulates the payment of other emoluments.

What is emerging from these voices is that there is not enough talking going on among stakeholders. On one hand, the unions and others in the private sector have a legitimate claim to be alarmed when they are left out of critical consultative forums. On the other hand, the government’s desire to provide an equitable insurance safety net for civil servants and members of the armed forces is just as important.

While we acknowledge that unions have a legitimate role in ensuring that the welfare of their members is best served by pursing these interests, we must point out that in modern times, unions must push their case through negotiated mechanisms without distractive and unproductive histrionics. And as these unions push their agenda, they must take cognizance of the context in which their demands are placed.

They must assess the state of the economy and determine if the interests they pursue will be for the general good of the society.

On its part, the government and other state agencies must keep their doors open to allow for a consultative and participatory decision-making process. Ultimately, the interest of the stakeholders must be balanced against the interest of the wider society. Otherwise, we will continue to have unproductive engagements that distract us from the key task of nation-building.