Friday, May 1, 2009

The day Kenya workers’ anger boiled over

A raucous protest interrupts President Kibaki’s Labour Day speech delivered by minister John Munyes at Uhuru Park on Friday. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI

A raucous protest interrupts President Kibaki’s Labour Day speech delivered by minister John Munyes at Uhuru Park on Friday. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI 

By LUCAS BARASA

Protests against the rising cost of living, job losses, low pay and failed leadership came to the boil on Friday when frustrated workers disrupted the presidential Labour Day address delivered by Labour minister John Munyes.

They expressed their frustrations despite being awarded an 18 per cent pay increase for the lowest paid workers in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu bringing their pay to Sh6,130 a month.

The entire top leadership of President Kibaki, Vice- President Kalonzo Musyoka and Prime Minister Raila Odinga gave the celebrations a miss. President Kibaki and Mr Odinga were in Nairobi while Mr Musyoka was said to be in his Mwingi North constituency.

The workers heckled, threw stones and generally interrupted the official speech forcing the minister to skip some sections and eventually abandon his address.

And as the ceremony drew to the end, the workers staged a walkout while government officials scrambled to have the National Anthem played to signal its closure. Some workers also threw stones at the dais where VIPs sat.

Religious and civil society groups have recently taken the government to task over the rising cost of living, insecurity and hunger. The National Council of Churches of Kenya describes President Kibaki’s leadership as moribund and Mr Odinga’s as ineffective.

Recent opinion polls also showed most Kenyans were dissatisfied with the government.

These public grievances were on Friday expressed in constant heckling in which the crowd shouted “Unga (maize flour)!”, “Stima (electricity)!”, “maisha ngumu (Life is too hard)!” and “Migingo!”, the latter in reference to Kenya’s diplomatic approach to the dispute with Uganda over a Lake Victoria island of that name nominally controlled by Kampala.

The main celebrations at Uhuru Park in Nairobi started on a low note before Central Organisation of Trade Unions secretary-general Francis Atwoli worked up the crowd by raising concern over ills facing the nation and urged them to be patient as Mr Munyes had “good news” for them.

However, Mr Munyes, who was the chief guest, was jeered when he stood up to speak and announced that he had been sent by President Kibaki to deliver his message.

The workers heckled persistently as the Turkana North MP tried to extol the government’s achievements, efforts to cushion them from the global financial crisis, create more jobs and improve infrastructure.

The minister, who was accompanied by Education minister Sam Ongeri, was forced to skip large parts of the speech which had been prepared for delivery by President Kibaki to announce the wage increment in an attempt to pacify the crowd.

“Due to the rising cost of living and in order to protect workers who are not covered by the Collective Bargaining Agreements, I direct that the statutory minimum wage be increased with immediate effect,” Mr Munyes announced, amid applause from the workers who only seconds earlier were hostile to him.

He set the minimum wage for agriculture sector workers at Sh3,043 and for those under the general category in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu cities at Sh6,130.

Workers in all municipalities including Mavoko, Ruiru and Limuru Town councils will now pocket Sh5,655 while those in “all the other areas” will pocket Sh3,270.

“I would like to urge all of you to continue working hard so that we can achieve our development objectives as contained in our Vision 2030,” the President said in the speech.

The minimum wage for workers in the industrial sector was last raised in 2006 when it went up from Sh4,817 to Sh5,395.

In 2006, the minimum wage for unskilled agricultural workers not covered under the Collective Bargaining Agreement stood at Sh2,536, while skilled ones fetched Sh3,075. This group on Friday received a 20 per cent pay rise while the workers in towns got an 18 per cent boost.

Federation of Kenya Employers chairman Patrick Obath and Mr Atwoli welcomed the increment which was however dismissed as a “too little and a joke to minds of workers” by Union of Kenya Civil Servants secretary-general Tom Odege.

Mr Atwoli said the increment was a good platform for workers to bargain for more. Mr Obath, said employers were “happy with what has been done”.

He, however, warned that the increment would hurt consumers again as it will result in the increase of prices of agricultural commodities and other goods. He urged companies to look at what was good for them before laying off workers due to financial crisis. Mr Odege said the increment was below the expectations of workers.

Did not attend

“We want the lowest paid worker to earn at least Sh15,000. What can you do with Sh3,000 in present Kenya?” Mr Odege asked.

President Kibaki, Prime Minister Odinga and Vice-President Musyoka did not attend the celebrations usually marked worldwide. But Presidential Press Service director Isaiah Kabira said the President did not snub the ceremony as his speech was delivered by Mr Munyes.

Mr Odinga’s aide, Mr Dennis Onyango, said the PM had planned to mark Labour Day with several activities in Kibera in his Lang’ata constituency the climax of which was a soccer match at Joseph Kang’ethe grounds which he presided over.

Mr Atwoli regretted that while there has been rapid increases in prices “there has been no adjustment in the minimum wage.” He attributed the food shortages facing the country to failure by the government to license more grain handling firms to operate at the port of Mombasa.

He said the one firm currently operating at the port had no capacity to handle all the food imports leading to delays in off-loading and extra costs transferred to consumers.

Mr Atwoli further called for price controls of fuel and flour “and if possible the government must own government stores for the poor Kenyans as it is in India, China and many other countries.”

Cutting short

Before prematurely cutting short President Kibaki’s speech, Mr Munyes, urged employers to use other cost-cutting measures to deal with the recession other than sacking workers.

He said Sh1.6 billion had been distributed to 55,000 youth groups under the Youth Enterprise Development Fund resulting in the creation of 200,000 jobs. The recently launched Kazi Kwa Vijana initiative is set to create 300,000 jobs in six months, he added.

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