BY STEPHEN MUTORO
The frequency and severity of labour disputes, with majority leading to expensive cost of withholding essential services to governments and private firms, is a growing concern for world economy and consumers alike.
Sample three case studies in Switzerland, Canada and Germany which happened recently.
The ITUC, the Building and Wood Workers International and the Swiss Union Unia met with FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke at FIFA headquarters, to inform him that unless Qatar upholds labour rights, the international trade union movement will campaign against the 2022 World Cup being held there.
In a separate incident, the Public Service Alliance of Canada won a final victory in a pay-equity case against Canada Post that goes back a generation. The Supreme Court of Canada, in a rare ruling from the bench delivered by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, sided with the union in the $150-million dispute. The unanimous court said reasons will be delivered later.
Elsewhere, IG Metall has been carrying out two hour warning strikes in North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Bremen, and demands salary rise of 7 percent for the 75,000 steelworkers in the German states.
Back home, and only in November, the Kenya Power staff strike was averted at the eleventh hour. Then Kenyans would have been plunged into total darkness and inconveniences which come with it.
Thereafter, a largely unreported “go-slow” from staff of a major airline ushered in the turn of university lecturers and nurses. The university dons had almost paralysed learning and hopes of graduation ceremonies.
The dons striking force which had started cracking hastily took advantage of their meeting with Labour Minister John Munyes to melt down their tough talk, opting for the negotiating table.
Before then, the giant teachers’ union had had its way in arm twisting government on the recruitment of 18,000 teachers. The union leadership had argued then that “government is never broke” only that it often lacks goodwill.
The Kenya Civil Servants Union demands are still to be fully settled. Police, public service motorists and many others have on occasions found threats to withhold their services more attractive in collective bargaining.
Kenya’s emerging trend of labour dispute threats is worrying. By December 5 and assuming the government will not get into an overdrive, doctors are expected to down their life-saving syringes, thermometers and other tools of trade.
If they make good their threat, doctors will be looking the other way as their patients’ pain either intensify or swiftly eases through painful and uncalled for deaths.
Kenyan doctors would not be the first or last to strike. Late October, their Ghana counterparts ended their three week-long strike on account of “numerous appeals by well-meaning Ghanaians”. They also cited the floods and humanitarian situation to resume work.
As Kenyan doctors want their salaries quadrupled, the 1964 words of Dr. Louis Lasagna, a former Principal of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, whose inspiration created the latter day oath of doctors will come into sharp focus.
“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures (that) are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
“Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
“I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help”.
What is not in question is whether our doctors need better pay or not. But will they be justified to occasion deaths to innocent voiceless and helpless patients before they can occasion attention of healthy policy and decision makers to act?
Article 41 of the Kenyan Constitution grants every person the right to fair labour practices. That fairness allows workers to enjoy a “fair” remuneration, “reasonable” working conditions, freedom to form, join or participate in activities of trade unions including the right to go on strike.
So doctors are perfectly in order to proceed on strike. But it is the “finest traditions” of medicine and joy of healing that the Kenyan doctors must be prepared to forget regardless of how genuine their demands are.
More fundamentally, if Kenya allows all manner of labour disputes including domestic workers, waiters and sensitive case of doctors, the country must ready itself for even more serious consumer boycotts of services and products.
(Stephen Mutoro is the Secretary General, Consumers Federation of Kenya -COFEK)