Kenyan trade unions are on their death beds



Kenya, like most African countries, hates a strong labour movement with diverse membership. Consequently, trade unionists have in the years been persecuted by none other than one time partners in the struggle for self determination. The punitive practice against agitation for better terms and decent wages persists to this date without the government’S intervention.

Unfortunately, the trade union movement ceased to be a post independence partner but a sworn enemy of the government. Strikes have violently crashed, leaders arrested and detained without trial save for a new constitution that legalises picketing and demonstrations.

Oblivious of the role played by unions in the struggle for political independence, the beneficiaries of the sacrifices by unions chose to perpetuate colonial practice against the labour movement in independent Kenya. One such glaring practice was the retention of colonial labour laws in the statute books for nearly half a century.

Stopping workers of certain cadres from joining unions is common under the close watch of the Ministry of Labour. Employers – foreign and local – enjoy above the law status in their quest to suppress industrial dissent. Domestic and farm workers bear the greatest brunt of discrimination in the hands of brutal employers. Export Processing Zone business owners are notorious for sacking employees who demand to be employed on permanent terms and joining a trade union is also tabooed.

In recent times, the union membership has drastically dwindled as a result of privatisation of public enterprises and liberalisation of the economy. For instance, former telecommunication employees absorbed in the mobile telephone companies cannot be allowed by the new employers to continue with their membership in the Communications Workers Union. Other sectors are not spared either.

Contrary to belief of many unions here, the Kenya Local Government Workers Union (KLGWU) is the only organisation whose membership cuts across all grades without industrial disquiet and conflict. For instance, Town Clerks are members of the union with limited participation in union activities. By virtue of their roles as Council chief executives, they are not eligible to contest union elections but their grievances in Industrial Courts are handled by the union.

A hired manager that can be fired at will without a fall back position for redress needs a union than anything else and an ideal thing to do in the circumstances is to join a union of choice as is the case presently in the KLGWU.

The Kenyan labour movement bore the brunt of dictatorship in the hands of successive thankless governments. Former President Daniel arap Moi, compelled the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) to affiliate to the only ruling party then, Kenya African National Union (KANU) with all affiliate leaders enrolling as life members in the party whose leader was also the head of State and Government.

Through a decree, Moi also banned the Kenya Civil Servants Union (KCSU) and conditionally lifted the ban twenty years later. Civil Servants within certain grades are not eligible to join the union today. The former head of state also proscribed the Management Staff Association that for sometime handled grievances of staff on higher grades banned from joining unions. These are violations of the workers fundamental rights.

Moi was not exercising new powers in the line of duty but was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the late President Jomo Kenyatta. Through a decree, Kenyatta disaffiliated Teachers and Civil Servants Union from the National Labour Centre and detained without trial prominent labour leaders.

(Paul Amina is a freelance Journalist.

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