The public sector’s salaries and wages road is a well-worn and acrimonious one. In 2015, the long, drawn-out teachers’ strike arguably set off an avalanche of other public sector demands and strikes for better pay and conditions. Hopefully, we are in the final stages of the doctors’ strike although there are others in the pipeline.
The Kenyan public sector, like others around the world, has a history of being under-funded and under-resourced. The public servants who work in it are some of the victims of that. Conversely, the public are the subjects and often the victims of both.
The remuneration received by teachers, doctors, nurses and other skilled and trained public servants is one of the most acute of the anomalies. This is, especially so, when one considers both their training and time in internship.
This is not because of a deliberate and planned policy of governments. It is largely a result of successive governments being strapped for cash for many of its functions and operations. The government is in a double bind because not only is the money received split and stretched across many operations, but the augmenting of that money through supplementary funds is arduous and arguably, when that happens, the resources, including salaries and wages, are thinly spread.
I recall one senior Treasury official describing his job as that of a bureaucratic butcher. On the one hand, he spent a disproportionate amount of his time cutting budgets and allocations and on the other hand, trying to cajole the likes of the Kenya Revenue Authority and donors into providing more cash.
He decried how it was a most thankless job with no one being understanding or grateful. This is in contrast to the private sector where there is a competition of employers as opposed to the solitary one of the State. In tandem, the private sector attracts a large number of applicants and participants whether employers, the self- employed or employees.
When a demand or possible impasse takes place, one route is that of the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). This certainly helps to attempt to address the overall pay and working environment demands. But it faces one inevitable obstacle: The ability of government to pay for it. Not only are ministries straightjacketed by the rationing and division of financial and other resources. The ability to supplement that in the current course of a government financial year is a tough and limited one. The relevant dilemmas are mirrored in the county governments albeit on smaller scale. Hence agreements reached through CBAs are usually only practical when they kick into action in the next financial year. Much the same applies to court awards. They may well have taken into account the reasons and merits of the arguments for an award. But they are then subject to the reality and inevitable handbrake of money actually being available to pay it.
Even if the award applies to other financial years, the government’s financial planners and operators find it difficult to factor in what are often huge extra awards. There is an additional factor of equity. The government is the paymaster to many departments and cannot be seen to pay one a disproportionately higher amount due to a court award.
These labour and industrial confrontations use up, and indeed waste, a lot of time and energy that could be much more productively utilised. It is time all the parties – courts included – worked towards more inclusive solutions that are both equitable and sustainable and, of course, affordable.
Robert Shaw is a public policy and economic analyst.