The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5


Kenyan Labor

The Post-Colonial Era

by Kauli Mwembe

Nairobi, Kenya--For more than a quarter century the labor movement in Kenya has made significant strides for workers. The transition from colonial rule to independence saw the installation of important labor laws which were progressive by Third World standards. A comprehensive minimum wage law mandates both wages and wage increases. Strikes are legal. Dismissals can and are regularly appealed by unions to the industrial court. In recent years, however, these rights have been gradually eroded because of an ever increasing population and a slow-growing economy where job creation has simply not kept pace with the numbers looking for work. It's a combination that could be a "time bomb" for the country, notes the U.S. Labor Department. The Kenyan government has created a new Ministry of Manpower Development and Deployment to address the problem, but the Ministry's mandate--create jobs with little capital in a tight world economy--may be impossible.

Kenya is among only six countries in Africa where industrial courts still sit daily to hear and settle industrial disputes arising from wrongful dismissal, claims for wage increases and other labor disputes. Until recently, Kenya had only one Industrial Court under Justice Saeed Cockar, who over the years has come to be dubbed "the workers' savior." Due to the ever rising number of industrial disputes and a back-log of pending cases, the Kenyan government established a second Industrial Court early this year. The unions considered this to be an important pro-labor step.

All labor union matters are handled by individual unions and the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) Kenya. COTU is a member of the continental Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU). There are 27 unions in Kenya representing about 330,000 workers in all sectors of the economy. There were nearly twice this number of unions before a government-encouraged reorganization plan amalgamated several unions in related industries. The only non-union workers are civil servants in government ministries and departments; their union was scrapped by the government in the mid-1970s.

Industrial strikes have drastically decreased over the past five years, from 10 major strikes per year to only three in 1988. The number of strikes in all sectors, however, has increased in the last three years with 109 strikes in 1987. Most strikes are shortlived, wildcat actions which center on local issues, according to the Ministry of Labor. Al-though increased dialogue between employers and unions may have lessened tension, many workers are fearful of losing their jobs if they join a strike in an economy with high unemployment.

There are more than 1.5 million people in Kenya's workforce and approximately 550,000 are eligible to join COTU. COTU membership would be higher if casual laborers were allowed in�"casuals" (temporary employees) are legally prohibited from joining unions. Ac-cording to the Kenyan government there are about 170,000 casuals.

The treatment of "casuals," says COTU Secretary-General, Joseph Mugalla, "has haunted the trade union movement for many years and is a throwback to the colonial era when workers were classified as casual people."

Mugalla believes the Kenyan labor movement could be strengthened if the "casuals" were allowed to unionize. To this end, COTU is now negotiating with the government to organize casual workers regardless of their salaries. COTU also wants all casual workers to become eligible for the benefits that permanent workers get: worker's compensation, housing and pensions.

The COTU secretary-general recently flayed the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) for advocating that the government should institute more controls on wages. Mugalla sees such a move as an obstacle to expansion in industry. He argues that if workers are poorly paid, their purchasing power will remain low and they will not be able to afford manufactured goods. This will keep manufacturers from expanding and new jobs will remain an unfulfilled goal.

COTU also believes that the current minimum wage of $37 per month is "shamefully inadequate" and needs to be reviewed immediately. COTU is pushing for an in-crease to at least $110 per month. The Kenyan minimum wage, argues COTU, has been seriously eroded by inflation. Consumer prices have increased 169 percent with minimum wages rising only 111 percent. After adjustments for inflation, Kenya's minimum wage has been steadily declining since 1976 and now stands at only 55 percent of its 1976 level. Thus a worker earning the mini-mum wage of $37 in 1987 has 45 percent less money to spend on food, shelter, clothing and medical care than he did in 1976.

Observers in business circles think investors view low wages with mixed emotions: while some foreign investors look at low wages as a sure means of maximizing profits, others see them as a sure way of reducing purchasing power in the market which could subsequently mean low sales.

On the other hand, government economists argue that it is better to maintain low wages that the national economy can support rather than high wages that will lead to high inflation. The Executive Director of the FKE, Tom D. Owuor, was the first to respond to COTU's demands for new minimum wages.

"In raising minimum wages we are guided by certain factors like the ability of the economy," said Owuor. To sustain any level of minimum wages, he says, other factors come into play like the level of unemployment in the country as well as the ability of the small employers to pay. COTU has to be realistic in its approach to the whole issue, he says, but FKE is studying COTU's demands.

The FKE was established in January 1969 in response to the activities of the then-Kenya Federation of Labor, which had unified the trade union movement into a single entity.

The employers felt they needed an organization that could represent them on major social and economic is-sues. Since then, the Federation has gained considerable strength and power. It started as a body with only 161 employers; today it represents about 3,000.

On the thorny issue of casual labor, the group has few real answers. Since a large number of Kenya's industries are seasonal in nature, like agriculture, hotels, restaurants, plantations and other related businesses, it is very difficult to eliminate casual labor entirely, says Owuor.

The industrial court ruled in 1967 that employment of casual labor in industries should be a maximum of six weeks and that it is incumbent upon union leaders to discuss this matter with the employers so that workers who are performing jobs of a permanent nature can be considered for permanent employment after a given period of time. Some manufacturers and businesses, however, retain casual labor for protracted periods of time, which is one of the main causes of industrial disputes.

Unionizing casuals may be essential to safeguard the gains of all Kenyan workers. Low wages and limited benefits make casuals an attractive proposition for companies trying to cut costs. The exploding population will only exacerbate the situation as more and more workers enter a work market incapable of keeping pace with this growth. As the population growth continues to outpace the growth of jobs, employers will have increasing lever-age to demand concessions from both workers and their unions. Kenya's labor movement must somehow address these issues if it is to continue to make progress on worker's rights. ^

Kauli Mwembe has written on business for the Kenya Times. He is currently writing for the Daily Nation in Nairobi.

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