Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Food Crisis, Wages and the Kenyan Laborers

By George Nyongesa
Bunge La Mwananchi

The implementation of the five new statutes in related to industrial law namely, the Employment Act 2007, the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2007, the Labour Relation Act 2007, the Labour Institution Act 2007 and the Work Injury Benefits Act 2007 is a significant progress in Kenya’s labour movement.

The new laws herald a dawn from the darkness of colonial and neo-colonial labour laws that saw workers as a "machine" or "beasts of burden" without human rights. However, the workers’ gains remain largely theoretical rather than practical. To illustrate, Kenya has an explosive population increase which translates to an equally fast growing labour force. However, our economy’s growth does not match the labour force’s growth and therefore supply does not match the demand as between job creation for the increasing job seekers. This sets the foundation for impracticality of some of the liberties or rights granted under the reformed labour laws. For example, although workers may lawfully strike, this right is curtailed by the reality that they are easily replaceable by other eager job seekers. Although the labour laws now require that an employee be provided with reasons for dismissal and the employee can challenge a dismissal by reporting to a Labour Officer, the dispute would proceed to the industrial court. However, due to corruption in our courts, the employer easily manipulates the process to his advantage. The lack of comprehensive minimum wage revision policy has left workers at the mercy of annual presidential diktat. This has meant that where no upward revision is made as has happened in the last two years; workers remain stuck at a wage which does not reflect the realities of our economy such as inflation rates.

This year’s Labour Day came in the wake of the formation of a grand coalition government and workers thronged to Uhuru Park to witness the government’s grand plans for the workers. But that was not to be! Predictably the event was a political elite arena to trade allegiance and disregarded the owners of day - workers. Workers literally pleaded with President Kibaki for a pay increase... However, they ended up a disappointed lot, even after braving the hot sun rays and long winded speeches.

The Kenyan workers’ story is a montage of sad tales. In independent Kenya, we still refer to our workers in colonial terms as "casual people". According to our laws, this lot is not unionisable. Further, consider these, despite the labour law reforms, domestic workers work longer hours for measly wages, Jua Kali workers have no pension scheme, aged un-pensionable workers cannot retire because they have no pensions or savings, generally, employers continue to demand more than they contracted or are paying their workers for, employees are arbitrarily dismissed; and now as it is Nairobi, workers trek long distances and stay hungry all day for lack of transport and food allowances. Further, there is no shortage of multinationals intent on maximising profits that are capitalising on the gray areas in the labour laws.

The recent mass walk-out by the workers on President Kibaki at the Uhuru Park Labour Day celebrations, after he casually dismissed their demand for an upward pay review even in the wake of Prison Warders’ go-slow followed closely by the Nurses’ 28 day notice of a strike, signals a "time bomb" of the rising dissatisfaction over the workers’ desperate situation.

More poignant is the growing critical consciousness amongst Kenyans over socio-political and economic dynamics of our country. For example, the masses are increasingly questioning how it is that the rich continue to make more money for comparatively few working hours and yet the poor can barely get by on the wages they receive after long hours of work. Our people find it extremely difficult to understand why a relatively-not-so-taxing job of a Member of Parliament attracts untaxed salary of over K.Shs. 1.1 million for 12 days work in a month and over 15 million of our workforce are expected survive on a paltry wage of K.Shs. 5,500 and below for 30 days’ work in the same month even as recent research suggested that an ordinary family in Nairobi requires Ksh. 37,000/- per month to live comfortably. They agonize on why starving Kenyans should pay taxes to foot the Government’s increased "luxurious" expenditure of KES 8 billion p.a. for unnecessary bloated cabinet of 42 ministers and then turn around and tell the same Kenyans that the Government cannot afford to increase the minimum wage or lighten their tax burden.

This new realization and inquisitive attitude coupled with the hard economic times and the looming food crisis is a perfect recipe for civic expressions of dissatisfaction such as riots over the increasingly apparent social imbalance.

The failure by President Kibaki twice in a row to raise the minimum wage betrays the detachment of our political class from the realities of the grass root Kenyans’ lives. It is this very oblivion that causes the political class not to see their public double standard in the fact that whenever it suits their interests, they are able to push through a supplementary budget, but when it concerns "the least of these" in our society, there is a swift rebuttal excused on budgetary constraints. Further, the masses are also acutely aware that the political class and some elite are relatively cushioned from the impact of inflation compared to the grass root Kenyans’ survival. Or how else should we explain the easy with which the political class explain away the increasing commodity prices to inflation without remembrace that even when the economy is doing well as claimed in the last five years there was no proportionate increase in the workers’ wages as a relief for past hard times? Imagine the economic possibilities among the masses if our government raised minimum wage from KES 5200/- to KES 10,000/-. There is a phobia among our political class to put more money in the hands of our people simply because it is easier to lord over a beggar.

However, our politicians need to know that when workers are poorly paid, their purchasing power stagnates and they are unable to afford manufactured goods and that this keeps manufacturers from expanding consequently making job creation an elusive goal? Since the grave state of our people's affairs is skewed in favour of the political class and some elite, it is unlikely that reforms will emanate from that circles, since they are the beneficiaries. Therefore, it is not an option but squarely the masses’ responsibility to fight for themselves. Laborers are not just laborers. Workers are not just workers. They are living and breathing beings upon which the structures of our civilization are built. They are not the cog in our factory machine. They are the machines themselves. They deserve better!

Workers: Let us stand up for social balance now! Let us push for all workers even "casuals" to be unionised. Let us push our government departments, non-governments, religious institutions, corporates, embassies among others to employ 3 more Kenyans as an emergency job creation marshal plan. Let us fight to put more money in the hands of people. The way I see it, this will rejuvenate country’s production capacity as our people’s health improves and the extra spending money will excite renewed purchasing power which according to law of demand and supply will force more production and hence creation of employment. Lastly, let us start looking for leadership that will begin to address the structured socio-economic imbalances that preys on the masses to benefit a few; and a push for reduction of parliamentarians’ salaries and allowances and further taxing that salary is good place to start!

George Nyongesa
Bunge La Mwananchi
0720 451 235


patrice said...

Hi George - you say that "... recent research suggested that an ordinary family in Nairobi requires Ksh. 37,000/- per month to live comfortably." Can you give me the source for your figure? It's exactly the info I'm looking for, but I'd like a source. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The mimumum tax free income in Kenya is Sh.121,968 pa.Why not ensure that all Kenyans get that at least? Locational adjustments can come later...