Trade unions should get back on their feet

COTU Secretary-General Francis Atwoli. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The central function of labour unions is to represent, protect and champion the interests and aspirations of workers. Unions in actual fact are a major component of the system of modern industrial relations.

However, the situation in Kenya is different. Non-functioning unions have left over 15 million workers in the informal sector and three million in the formal sector to the whims of the government and rogue employers. The capacity of trade unions in representing workers and transforming the workforce today is questionable because most of them have been cannibalised by State organs and employers.

Most unions lack solidity to steer collective bargaining negotiations, mount checks on unfair labour practices, shape public policy and decision-making, increase co-operation and well-being among workers, check excesses of the government as well as initiate dispute resolution mechanisms.

Through State-sponsored schemes, unions' ability and potential have been eroded to the level they cannot protect workers from tyrannical policies that give birth to exploitative and abusive conditions of work. For the first time in history, unions have failed to resist the government and employers' dominance over workers and the subversion of recognition agreements.

As a matter of fact, union membership has significantly decreased in the past 10 years, hence unions' numerical strength and financial power have also reduced. Through the influence of State organs, most unions' recognition agreements have been drafted in a manner that has rendered labour movements impotent and caged to the level that they must seek permission from employers before calling for industrial action.

The inability of trade movements to mobilise members, negotiate for good CBAs, take part in development of economic policies and take industrial action whenever the situation demands has diminished chances of Kenya to lower the unemployment rate, which stands at 6.6 per cent. Currently, trade unions are disadvantaged position and cannot respond effectively to challenges and opportunities that come with the ever-changing nature of work and employment relations.

It is now time for trade movements to renegotiate recognition agreements; the foundation and pillar of trade unionism. Fresh agreements will facilitate union leaderships to negotiate rewarding, binding and effective CBAs with employers. It is important for the incoming government to embrace bid by unions to review recognition agreements since it is through strong labour movements that workers will be able to negotiate for higher wages, benefits and improved working conditions.

-Mr Sossion is an expert in education, leadership and policy