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KQ pilots deserve no mercy over their unlawful strike

Health & Science
 KALPA secretary General Capt. Murithi Nyagah (centre) addresses the press on November 7, 2022, at Rubani House in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Impunity arises when there is disregard for the rule of law.

Yet, this is precisely what the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) have done in ignoring injunctive court orders staying their notice of industrial action. Consequently, KALPA have instructed their members to withhold their labour, leading to the grounding of air transport services provided by Kenya Airways (KQ).

KALPA's intransigence is not without precedent. Not for the first time, they have made unconscionable demands and walked out of negotiations with their employer KQ in an "all or nothing" attitude. A chronology of events leading to this week's unlawful strike bears witness.

Central Organisation of Trade Unions boss Francis Atwoli offered to mediate a dispute between KALPA and Kenya Airways.

KALPA walked out on him. Then the Labour ministry sent a conciliator to attempt a resolution of the dispute. KALPA, in a strongly-worded letter said they "cannot and will not participate in the process with individuals that are currently holding management positions at Kenya Airways Plc."

On the 4th of November, Cabinet Secretaries (CSs) from the Labour and Transport ministries engaged KQ and KALPA heads in a five-hour discussion in an attempt to avert a strike. The CSs said, "the management of KQ expressed willingness to openly engage in extensive negotiations to address the grievances raised by pilots." Of KALPA, they said, "unfortunately they did not heed the calls to suspend the strike which has led to massive disruptions in Kenya Airways operations."

From the foregoing, it is clear that KALPA are intractable. It is disingenuous of them to claim deep-seated grievances that have been ignored by management. It is the height of chicanery to ask for an audience with one breath and with another, refuse to sit at a negotiation table.

For far too long, KALPA have been allowed to be a law unto themselves. In one of their previous strikes, they demanded a complete overhaul of the KQ management team just when it seemed they had gotten solutions to KQ's challenges. This led to the resignation of the then-CEO, Head of Human Resources, and others.

KALPA's modus operandi has a certain deja vu to it; force out KQ management through interminable demands just as they are on the cusp of turning the organisation around. But to what end are these actions intended? The Transport CS has said, "the action taken by pilots, considering the economic challenges and the biting drought, is akin to economic sabotage." Who then stands to benefit from these infernal strikes?

Certainly, no one begrudges KALPA the right to their pension fund. Indeed, the KQ management acknowledges that these are owed to KALPA members but gives a cogent explanation as to when the same will be paid. It must not be lost on Kenyans that any arrears arising from the suspended fund was as a result of the one and a half years the airline did not fly on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. It should also be borne in mind that the fund suspension was not a unilateral management decision but rather, one that was sanctioned by fund trustees in line with the Trust Deed Rules and with the approval of the Retirement Benefits Authority.

KALPA's current unlawful strike is a misadventure that is regrettable. The reasons advanced do not warrant a disruption that is costing the airline Sh300 billion daily. Of the 3,800 hard-working Kenyans employed by KQ, 3,400 non-KALPA members are supportive of the management's action plan to clear the arrears, acutely aware that resumption is contingent on an improved bottom line and availability of funds.

It is reprehensible that flagrant disregard of a court order should be permitted. Lawless caprice cannot be entertained. KQ should take up the Labour CS's advice to deal decisively with this unlawful strike by taking "necessary lawful measures to restore normalcy including but not limited to dismissal, against pilots who have not reported to duty as per the company instructions and the court order."

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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