Tread carefully on proposal to scrap permanent employment


A new employee reads through an employment agreement. [Getty Images]

As a model, contract employment that the government proposes to introduce has advantages. In well-established public service delivery systems, employees have weekly, monthly, bi-annual and annual targets to achieve.

Employees report to work aware that their continued stay on the job depends on their commitment. Besides, promotions and privileges at work are directly generated from the performance scorecard. This model has other advantages compared to permanent and pensionable contracts

However, models are just that; models. Every model has conditions under which it optimally works. To date, civil servants in Kenya and most of the world, are employed under the permanent and pensionable model.

This model provides job security, consistency, clear steps leading to career progression over the years, flexibility to acquire specialised skills and experiences relevant to a respective department and generally has better working conditions and retirement benefits.

The conditions under which a contradict employment performs optimally are best met in the private sector whose financial performance is determined by many factors including an enabling business environment. Most importantly, the private sector is driven by outputs and return on investment.

Employers, more than employees, are self-motivated lest they make losses. For those in organisations such as civil society, employers have to navigate and adapt to a fluid financial environment. Contract employment is the option since there is no other.

The government’s decision to transition from permanent and pensionable to contract employment is likely to backfire in terms of employee productivity. We still suffer serious ethnic balkanisation in distributing job opportunities in the public service. Job insecurity for those who might fall victim of tribalism is real. We also have a major problem of ontologically insecure people who will grab the chance to dismiss juniors on very flimsy grounds couched as poor performance.

You see, the government is not a small organisation that survives even when staff turnover is high. Government staff who stay longer build an identity character of service to the public. True, there are characters in government who do not deserve to be there but that is not the reason the model is not working.

The government, the executive in particular, has a tendency to withdraw the powers of bureaucrats to act according to the law. From employment protocols, and internship placements to signing sensitive documents, the executive has a long itchy hand to do what bureaucrats know better how. The infamous “call from above” often undermines the credibility of junior public servants exacting their mandates.

Further, contract employment for civil servants will be effective in a system in which corruption is abhorred.  Corruption is a cancer in our country. Ideally, we should bow our heads in shame at the high level of tolerance to mega corruption in a praying nation – whatever this means. Let me digress here to say a praying nation and corruption of the magnitude the government talks about is a contradiction.

Back to my point, with contract employment, the bad apples with powers will descend on their juniors with all manner of blackmail and extortion. There will be many employees rising in ranks at a supersonic speed while others will stagnate for many years if lucky to hang in there. No one will want to lose a job because of following law and order.

It will help the government to reconsider its decision to do away with the permanent and pensionable contracting. First, the government should conduct public participation with the workers and experts. The insights drawn from this exercise should inform a more structured dialogue with civil servants to determine when such a policy could be enacted, if at all.

It is unethical to implement a radical policy that affects Kenyans some of whom have worked for years in government. It is also not clear what will change in terms of service delivery. There are people who have worked for years in government and will find it very difficult to reorient to different ways of working outside government. A radical proposal of this magnitude requires a phased-out approach.

Dr Mokua is the Executive Director, the Loyola Centre for Media and Communication

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