Lack of a sustainable pay policy in the public sector is to blame for the recent wave of industrial and labour unrest. The most painful is the strike by medical staff, which lasted nearly three months.
Doctors last week signed a deal to end the longest-ever medical strike in the country over pay. The government had threatened to fire them and hire foreign staff.
Earlier, striking dons agreed to return to work after the Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu) and university councils agreed to sign the 2013-2017 collective bargaining agreement, ending a 54-day strike that paralysed learning and research in all public universities since January 19.
Amid the sigh of relief breathed by citizens, experts say a fragmented approach by the government and lack of a pay policy has been precipitating the crises affecting doctors, lecturers and other government workers.
They argue that unless a sustainable salary structure with equity is implemented, the country has not seen the last of industrial unrest.
Typically, governments are vulnerable to pay demands during election years. Also, once one union takes on the authorities, many others follow suit.
The government is keen to look effective this election year and to avoid issues that could be used against it; so it is more likely to play ball.
But according to the International Budget Partnership, a non-governmental organisation focused on transparency and public engagement in budgeting, Kenya’s public sector pay woes are largely anchored on lack of a sustainable and fair labour policy.
“I don’t think we have a policy. We have a bunch of different approaches to pay. The biggest problem is fragmentation,” says Budget Partnership country manager Jason Lakin.
Mr Lakin says the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) is mandated to set public sector wages and advise on the same.
This conundrum, he adds, creates a duality that leads to differences in treatment. “In addition, SRC tends, by its nature and composition, to defend the public sector and particular types of workers over others without taking into account the impact, not only on other public workers, but also on the private sector, the economy and the budget,” he said in interview.
To arrest the situation and create a sustainable pay policy in a slowing economy, experts reckon that SRC, Treasury and other relevant agencies must ensure equity in pay structures.
“We do not have anyone involved in these pay discussions, who represents ordinary people. The cost of escalating pay and benefits for State workers is borne by the public. But the people who sit around and discuss public sector pay are themselves insiders who benefit from the system,” says Mr Lakin.
The salaries commission has in the past maintained it has attempted to harmonise salaries without leading to a bloated wage bill. But unions have argued that there is a huge pay divide between lower cadre workers and those in higher echelons.
Mr Lakin says there is a need to look at ways of creating more equity among State and public officers. “Pay talks are difficult to manage because the guys at the top, including officials such as MPs, earn so much that they have no moral ground to tell others to ask for much less,” he says.
“Treasury does not control State officials salaries. It should work more closely with SRC to ensure a sustainable approach to wages,” he adds.