Protecting our Labour

Michael Onsando
16 October ,2018

At the end of the day a country is build on the backs of labour. Policy and governance are tools towards the creation of a labour enabling environment from which the people can find a way to maximize the fruit of their labour. In this way, the organisation of labour cannot be divorced from organized politics or from the general discussion about creating frameworks within which citizens can grow.

“As I was contemplating to quit, my colleagues insisted and persisted that I must have another five year term, all positions I hold both locally and internationally I have never contested these positions,” he (Atwoli) said. 

He thanked the trade unions for support throughout the three year terms he has been secretary general.” 

  • Atwoli re-elected COTU Secretary General for fourth term.

Let’s not even talk about the, soon to be, 20 years that Francis Atwoli has been the Secretary general of COTU (a tenure that long is definitely a sign of innovation in a field). The mechanics around the relationship between labour and capital have changed with the world. So much so that the importance of trade unions in a modern developing world is debatable. According to McKeena & Beech (2002) as quoted here:

“…the tradition of employee representation through trade unions and collective bargaining as the focus of engagement between the management and unions is being replaced by new relationships in the workplace, but the replacement is not a single type. It is made up of a number of different trends. In some cases the traditional model is retained, in others increased individualism, and yet in other cases a partnership approach is adopted in which unions take some of the concerns of the organisation and work with management in order to maintain the profitability and longevity of the firm.” 

Factors Affecting Performance of Trade Unions in Kenya

Closer to home trade unions are largely characterized by public politicized strikes and broken CBAs. As to their internal affairs, we know they are whispered as spaces used to leverage power and get mtu wetu ahead. And, given our unemployment rate of 11.5% and poverty rate of 42% it’s difficult to organize trade when there will consistently be labour willing to replace the people who are disgruntled. This is not just a notion in the air. It happened to nurses, doctors and teachers.

Capital argues that labour sets the standards too high for business profitability. Life argues that the current payscale does not match rising inflation and the general cost of living in the country (can anyone explain how fuel is 115 bob and Kersone is 108? I have refused to understand). Somewhere amidst this is the reality that Kenya, as a geographical space, is under industrialized. These are not new arguments, we grieve pan paper mills, we grieve the cotton industry and so forth.

Still we see that labour in the country is undercompensated and the working class continue to grasp at straws – ama hatuchukui tala kulipa mshwari? And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have access to that level of (extremely expensive) credit. So even as we hear that there are more modern ways for labour to bargain with capital the question remains – are they effective?

And labour remains the key to industry.

And the key to labour will always be care.

It’s hard to care enough about the outcome without vested interest – this might be part of the problem. I’ve been wondering about creating hope, mutual vested interest in this space called Kenya. A space that is so fractured along the lines of identity that political commenters are “talking divorce” and I guess pwani ni Kenya now given Joho’s position in the larger political chessboard.

The answer might lie in labour, something that cannot be taken away from a people. The work. Beyond just trade unions it’s along organized lines of labour that we see the most solidarity. An electoral vote happens every five years, but a boda guy will take a punch for another boda guy any other day. Artists will band together to take on Ezekiel Mutua whenever necessary.

“ “Poverty is a matter of choice. As Africa, we have chosen to be poor and complain over anything and everything, from colonialists to poor policies. Yet we are doing nothing to change this mindset,” Atwoli said.” 

Atwoli urges Kenyans not to seek jobs abroad

I agree with his larger point in the article – we really shouldn’t be looking for jobs elsewhere if the goal is to create livability here (and thus making the path to livability easy for those around us). I even see why, as the head of labour, he needs to preach the roll up your sleeves and work gospel. There are many who need this kind of talk to feel powerful, to have their excuses “taken away.” Coming from him this is to be seen as a show of strength, unbreakability – but not of care.

It’s care that we need to cultivate.

“Curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play.” 

The blindspots of a STEM focused education reform

 

“The new curriculum has been touted as the ultimate remedy to limitations identified in the 8-4-4 system because it is entirely skills-based (…) Experts are of the view that it will enable learners to develop beyond academics and also focus on how best they can use their specific talents to make a living.”

New 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum: How different is it from the 8-4-4 system?

Care is a product of choice. Power is the ability to choose.

This is why I have hope in the new education system. It seems, in a way 8-4-4 was not, designed to cultivate care for labour. With choices opened up from earlier on the future generation seems more set to make choices that they own and thus have vested interests in, perform labour they care for which might finally help unlock industry – or at least begin to recognize and take back the power of trade unions and demand more of those who protect the only thing we can really call our own – our work.

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