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State order paves way for free, fair Knut polls

By Wilson Sossion | December 7th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

KNUT grass root elections. [Munene Kamau, Standard]

The most fundamental principles defining credible elections is that they must reflect the free will of the people. To achieve this, elections should be transparent, inclusive, and accountable. There must be equitable opportunities to compete in the polls.

These broad principles are buttressed by several electoral process-related obligations, as well as a number of key rights and freedoms, each of which derives from Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) constitution, Labour Relations Act, Constitution (2010), and international conventions, treaties and protocols.

Free and fair elections are the foundation of every healthy democracy, ensuring that the union leadership derives from the will of the members (teachers). But to have confidence that their elections are truly free and fair, teachers need to be assured of more than just a well-managed day of polling.

Indeed, it is for this, that the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection issued a circular on October 30, 2020 to the effect that for Knut to hold transparent and democratic elections, the union must be steered by the original membership register as it is the only viable register that can facilitate free and fair polls.   

The assurance of fair and free elections by the Ministry of Labour has significantly restored tutors’ confidence and trust in the electoral system as teachers who were forcefully ejected from Knut membership roll would now have a chance to exercise their democratic rights through electing officials of their choice.

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The mutilated membership register had, initially, given a wrong impression that Knut had lost majority of its members to rival unions. Moreover, the action portrayed that the check-off system had been messed up. This, temporarily caused intense anxiety and panic within the union ranks, but soon, the truth emerged with the assurance by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection that Knut membership is still intact at 187,471 members.

The assurance greatly restored hopes that Knut is still vibrant, functional and lively despite numerous attempts by Teachers Service Commission (TSC) to forcefully offload members from the Union register.

In the same vein, the commission has been constrained to release the by-products to Knut leadership, so as to enable the union comply with Section 34 of the Labour Relations Act which provides that elections for trade unions shall be conducted in accordance with their registered constitutions.

The Act states that there will be no discrimination in an election, and the register of members shall be presented to the Commissioner for Labour and the respective County Labour Offices with certified copies of the trade unions’ constitutions at least 60 days before the elections. The law further states that the commissioner should be served with notice of the election and the venue of the polls. This information, thereafter is published in the ministry’s website, and other public media within a reasonable time.

For the sake of clarity, the Registrar of Trade Unions has urged TSC to release to Knut the records of total number of members in each of the 110 Knut branches, how they (members) have been deducted 2 per cent membership fee from salaries, and how the total remittance has been shared out to the branches. This crucial information is essential to facilitate the union to plan and execute its programmes, and also carry out administrative and statutory functions as outlined in the Constitution (2010), Labour Relations Acts and Knut constitution.

For the past 15 months, TSC has not furnished Knut with by-products as required by Section 48 of Labour Relations Act for fear of litigation, hence it becomes extremely difficult to prepare the branches and the national office with respect to the forthcoming elections scheduled to start on January 4, 2021 at the branch level, culminating in the national polls by June 31, 2021.

If TSC fails to honour the directive by the Registrar of Trade Unions to release the by-products, it means over 150,000 legitimate Knut members will not be able to participate in the union elections, and thus grossly deny teachers their constitutional right under Section 41 of the Bill of Rights – every person has the right to fair labour practices; to form and join an employers’ organisation, and to participate in the activities and programmes of an employers’ organisation.

If the circular is not complied with, and rightly implemented to the detail, it might not be possible for Knut leadership to organise and conduct free, fair and democratic elections. Denying Knut the by-products constitutes deprivation of social and political rights of union members.

Moreover, denying Knut the by-products is viewed by the larger public as part of a wider and elaborate scheme to destabilise, and weaken the union – denying it the much needed funds is aimed at derailing the day-to-day operations of the trade movement.

The consequences of a mutilated register mean Knut will not have enough financial resources to organise and hold elections as per the directive of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. However, as acknowledged by the Ministry of Labour that the union membership stands at 187,471; this should be a reason enough for TSC to compute union dues, including arrears based on this figure.

It should be noted that Knut will not be able to comply with Sections 33 and 34 of the Labour Relations Act, and other related requirements as regards conducting the scheduled elections if TSC fails to furnish the trade movement with the by-products as required by the law, and also release union dues in full.  

Mutilation of union membership register amounts to voter suppression which is a strategy that can be used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of members from voting.

Knut is an independent, membership-based organisation of teachers that represents and negotiates on behalf of tutors. The union gives advice when teachers have problems at work, represents members in labour and professional talks with TSC – hence denying teachers the exercise of their democratic rights to elect leaders of their choice amounts to stifling the union and its activities.

The move by the Ministry of Labour to endorse the original Knut membership register for the forthcoming electoral process, is a clear manifestation that the government fully recognises the union leadership and its programmes.

Mr Sossion is a nominated MP and Secretary-General of Knut

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