Kenya’s forgotten workers and a self-serving labour movement

Published in the Saturday Standard on 2 May, 2020

I am filing this column only a few hours before May Day. Also known as the International Labour Day, this holiday is celebrated all over the world, in honour of the dignity of labour. With a few exceptions, this festival comes on 1 May.

I salute all those who bring decency and honour to labour. These are the people who live by the sweat of their brow. They labour with their hands and with honesty of intellect. In a word, they sell manual and intellectual labour. Here in Kenya, we are reminded of the third stanza of our National Anthem. It has magnificently said, “And the glory of Kenya; the fruit of our labour, fill every heart with thanksgiving.”

The European Industrial Revolution (about 1760 – 1840) abused human dignity in the workplace. Women and children, especially, took the brunt of terrible working conditions. We recall the painful efforts that were enlisted – then and after – to reclaim this dignity. Organized approaches to the selling of human labour began in Great Britain in the 19th century. They aimed at ending the abuse of work. They subsequently found their way elsewhere, in Europe and in the United States; and even here in Africa. They took the shape of trade unions.

In spite of numerous political and legalistic drawbacks, organized labour triumphed. Collective bargaining arrived, to reduce friction between employers and the State on the one hand and the workforce on the other. It brought improved pay and other benefits. It also addressed general working conditions. In parts of Africa, the labour movement was associated with the coming of independence from European colonial powers.

Global designation of an official workers’ holiday came after persistent draining strikes, pickets and other forms of industrial unrest, in many countries. The hay market riot of 1886 in the Unites States killed dozens of workers and police officers, in Chicago. The rail road strike of the same year spread across five states. These were mirrored in other countries. They underlined the need for organized negotiation of labour.

It is remarkable that the International Labour Organization (ILO) was the first specialized agency of the United Nations in 1946. Indeed, ILO first came into existence in 1919, as a product of the Treaty of Versailles, after World War I. The essence of all this is the dignity of labour. Without dignified labour, nothing good happens.

The Papal open letter of 1891 on the dignity of labour is as relevant today as it ever was. Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical titled Rerum Novarum to address the misery of the working class. In Christendom, there is something of a sacrosanct ring on the dignity of labour. To this extent, it has been written (in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat. We . . . command and urge . . . people to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”

The 2020 Labour Day finds the global workforce in its most vulnerable hour. ILO projects that close to 1.2 billion jobs are globally at risk, because of the new coronavirus. ILO and trade unions around the globe are busy urging governments and employers to cushion workers with financial safety nets. This is a good thing to do. Yet, at the same time, the virus has exposed the soft underbelly of the global labour movement. Indeed, the question may be asked, how relevant are these unions today?

If the workers of the world have ever needed their unions, the time is now. Conversely, if unions have ever been helpless, it is now. For it is not enough for unions to petition employers and governments to provide safety nets in troubled times. The unions ought to be the relief entry points. Traditionally, unions created “unemployment funds.”

Such funds came in at times such as now, when Covid-19 is throwing workers into destitution. Here in Kenya, Cotu collects, annually, billions of shillings from its upwards of 4 million members. Now is the time for these billions to support the workers. The Kenyan situation is particularly awkward. The Secretary General spends inordinate energy on Uhuru succession politics. Even now, when he should be focused on practical support to workers, he is obsessed with 2022 succession lineups. Such is the nature of Alice-in-Wonderland loss of direction.

The 2020 Labour Day glaringly reminds us that trade unions don’t even have unemployment funds that could stretch out employers and governments, to secure good deals for the workers. Legitimate strikes collapse under State attrition in a matter of days, because the unions are broke. What do trade unions do with members’ contributions? Do they ever publish their accounts?

Elsewhere, governments have interfered with the unions, to make them State compliant. Teachers in Kenya, for example, are forced to belong to unions that the State finds obedient. A submissive lovey-dovey relationship between the State and trade unions is a comity of treachery. Of course, the relationship between the two need not be hostile. Yet when they party and make merry together, the worker is in trouble.

The fragile and uncertain times that the world is going through invite the global workforce to a reality check. We live in an age when the membership of labour unions has become more sophisticated than it was in the 19th century. Members deserve better from their unions.

going forward, comfort through unemployment funds must become obligatory in trade unions. It is not enough for unions to make demands of governments and employers. Union leaders must also be less overexcited and more practical. They must, especially, talk less about irrelevant politics, their personal wealth and their private life; all at the expense of serving their employers – the workers.

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