VC, top officials found guilty of contempt in pay row with staff

Egerton University VC Isaac Kibwage was found guilty, alongside eighth council members, for disobeying a court order. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

A university vice-chancellor has been found guilty of contempt of court in case that followed a pay dispute between the institution’s management and lecturers.

Egerton University’s Isaac Kibwage was found guilty, alongside eighth council members, for disobeying a court order that directed them to pay lecturers full salaries.

According to Wednesday’s ruling by Justice David Nderitu of the Employment and Labour Relations Court in Nakuru, the failed to honour orders the court gave on May 30.

The council members are Dr Hukka Wario (chairman), Paul K’Angira, Julius Mutua, Wilson Ronno, Charity Nyaga, John Ondari, Esther Wabuge and Joshua Otieno.

The nine, according to Justice Nderitu, shall not be given any audience in the court until they address the salary dispute with the lecturers.

Justice Nderitu ruled that Egerton University Academic Staff Union (Uasu), which sued the nine, proved beyond doubt that the disobedience was deliberate.

Although the court summoned the respondents to appear before it on November 28, they failed to do so. The judge said no reasonable explanations were given. “It is the court’s view that the respondents (VC and council) took this court’s orders casually,” the judge said.

He ruled that the management made no efforts to ensure lecturers are fully paid, despite the orders for them to do so.

The court ruled that the willful disobedience subjected Uasu members to irreparable financial embarrassment and violated their labour rights.

On Wednesday, Justice Nderitu dismissed explanations by management for deferring 40 per cent of lecturers’ pay between December 2021 and March 2022. He insisted that employees’ wages should be paid in full with respect to work done and employment contract agreements. “Deferment of salaries is unconstitutional. Full payment of agreed wages is a basic labour right. Unlawful deductions of any amount of salaries are unconstitutional and unlawful,” he ruled.

He said the university management had legal rights to reduce employees’ workforce by terminating employment on redundancy law instead of deferring salaries.

“Denial or deferral of wages is not one of the options available to an employer. It is unlawful and unconstitutional,” Nderitu ruled. Further, Nderitu dismissed a Covid-19 as a reason by the institution’s management, saying other universities were also affected but did not do what Egerton did.

He said it was proved without opposition that other universities pay full salaries and insisted that Egerton was no exception. “There were no audited accounts to demonstrate how the pandemic affected the university’s collections. Other public universities have not failed to pay full salaries,” said Nderitu. The court also dismissed as an afterthought, a June 9, 2022 letter by Prof Kibwage to PS for Education explaining why he could not pay lecturers in full.

The judge said no evidence was produced to prove the letter was delivered or received by the PS, and no evidence showed there was a follow-up on the letter. “Did the respondents have to wait until an order was issued for them to start acting? Do they expect workers to work without pay? What efforts have they made to mitigate the situation? All these questions are unanswered,” Justice Nderitu said.

The judge awarded Uasu the cost of the application. He gave the nine until Thursday, December 8 at noon, to prepare their mitigation before sentencing.

The university deducted 40 per cent of Uasu members’ salaries in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Aggrieved by the decision, Uasu members downed their tools on November 15, 2021, demanding the reinstatement of full pay as per November 30, 2020, Return to Work Formula.

The union moved to court in 2022 and sued the nine and despite the May 30 order, they claim the university refused to pay the 100 per cent salaries.

The union moved back to court and sued for contempt. They wanted the nine committed to a civil jail or fined. The court will sentence the respondents on Thursday December 8.