The East African Community on Wednesday took a giant leap as member states simultaneously launched the Common Market Protocol.
The protocol, which was signed on November 20, last year, allows free movement of goods, services, capital and labour in the bloc. It comes into effect at midnight.
Setting off the common market, President Kibaki on Wednesday evening ordered the waiver of work permit fees for all East Africans coming to Kenya.
“I am directing the Minister responsible for Immigration to waive fees on work permits for all East African citizens,” the President said.
He also directed Attorney-General Amos Wako to use Parliament to harmonise conflicting laws with EAC countries for the smooth implementation of the protocol.
Speaking at Nairobi's Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the President said the expanded market will increase opportunities for trade in goods and services.
Pact shatters barriers to free flow of goods
Life will soon be much better for East Africans with the coming into effect of the Common Market Protocol on Thursday. The protocol will bring down barriers to movement of labour and goods in the region in what experts are saying will be a boon to the people of the bloc.
Although analysts say it may take up to two years for the benefits of the protocol to trickle down to the citizens, it is one of the most significant developments in the region.
A Ugandan secondary school teacher working in Kenya, for example, will be able to join the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet). This is one of the provisions outlined by the East African Community (EAC) Common Market Protocol, allowing workers of nationalities other than the host, but from within the community, to join trade unions in the countries where they work.
Other benefits expected to accrue are lower prices due to enhanced competition and job creation. “With the free movement, lowly paid workers will discover better paying prospects across borders,” Prof Inonda Mwanje, the executive director of the Africa Public Policy Institute argues.
This would not only trigger competition for the best workers within the bloc’s labour market, but also improve pay and working conditions. Movement by citizens of a partner state in search of greener pastures in another country within the community just got easier. Those who have hitherto been considered “foreigners” but hail from within the community will enjoy new preferential status, equivalent to the local people.
Upon retirement, the workers will also enjoy social security benefits such as pension and health insurance within their adopted countries, just like the citizens of that country. “Partner states shall ensure non-discrimination of the workers of the other partner states, based on their nationalities, in relation to employment, remuneration, and other conditions of work and employment,” the protocol indicates under the article on free movement of workers.
However, it will take time before this translates into action due to the drawn out process that involves amending the Labour Relations Act, in the case of Kenya, and other national laws. “We will have to amend our constitution to embrace workers from other countries,” says Mr Akello Misori, the acting secretary general of Kuppet.
Mr Misori explains that presently, the union’s membership is drawn from individuals employed by the Teachers Service Commission, exclusively Kenyan. For this process to conform to the protocol, a possible change of name to reflect the diverse nationalities may be necessary.
This would also pave the way for closer collaboration among unions within the region. Presently, in the case of Kuppet, for instance, the collaboration within related bodies is through a global organ, Education International, based in Brussels. Prof Mwanje notes that since the protocol does not address itself to detail on effecting the provisions on labour issues, it is upon the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) and its equivalents within the region to harmonise labour laws.
“This process will define more clearly how a worker moving into another country within the community will be treated,” Prof Mwanje says. Nationality will no longer be a basis for recruitment; the competitiveness of the services that individuals provide will be the determining factor.
And cases where workers from other EAC member countries are discriminated against will be a thing of the past. And the process of getting official clearance to begin working upon moving to another partner state is much easier. Upon presenting a valid travel document (or electronic national identity card, in cases where it is accepted) and a contract of employment, besides declaring all the information required upon entry and exit, a pass for temporary movement will be issued free, and will be valid for six months to allow time to obtain a work permit.
However, enjoyment of all these benefits is not automatic. The partner states still retain the right to admission, according to the protocol: “The free movement of workers shall be subject to limitations imposed by the host partner state on grounds of public policy, public security, or public health.”