Since our industrial relations policy is dysfunctional, expect more strikes

Tuesday December 13 2011



The strike by doctors has not been called off after all. And, it is still too early to tell how negotiations for higher salaries between the government and university lecturers will pan out.

Meanwhile, nurses have given notice that they will soon lay down tools if their demands for better terms of service are not met.

At this rate, we must prepare to confront waves upon waves of strikes in the public sector.

What explains the upsurge of militancy among public sector workers?

The ravages of high inflation and high levels of discontent among the workers is a major factor.

But the most critical issue here is failure to reform our industrial relations system to conform to new realities.

The relative industrial peace we have enjoyed over the years is something our policymakers have tended to take for granted.

If we don’t overhaul the legal and political framework upon which the current industrial relations system stands, expect more work stoppages, especially in the public sector.

There was a time when policy discouraged the creation of small craft unions. Instead joining unions representing specific crafts, policy encouraged workers to join large industry-wide trade unions.

We appear to have dropped this policy along the way. Today, unions or associations agitating for workers’ right pop up daily.

In the flower sector around Naivasha, for example, strikes and work stoppages are organised by a multiplicity of non-governmental organisations, most of which operate without convincing mandates from the workers they represent.

During the strike by university lecturers, the government had to negotiate with multiple unions representing different categories of the employees.

Clearly, the architecture upon which our industrial relations system is based has fallen apart.

That is why, though doctors and nurses belong to one sector, the two categories of employees are allowed to negotiate separately with government.

The confusion is total. Even if the government finally strikes a deal with doctors and nurses, it won’t prevent para-medical staff — clinical officers and lab technologists — coming up with separate demands.

How can you guarantee industrial peace under such circumstances? A key pillar of the old system is that a clear distinction was made between unionisable and management staff.

What category of health sector worker should belong to a trade union? Is the consultant doctor teaching at the Medical School while running a successful clinic in Nairobi the type to be categorised as unionisable?

How about a senior university lecturer who earns a salary plus hefty allowances from teaching popular module 2 courses?

In the past, clear distinctions were made between managers, supervisors and unionisable workers. That’s how Mr Adell Kitoto, then of the Kenya Management Staff Association, had the State deregister his union. You could not be a manager and a unionisable employee at the same time.

In the current constitutional dispensation, it may be difficult to prevent staff joining a union. It happened in the past because labour unions operated in a highly-constrained political and legal environment.

The challenge is to modify policy and laws to respond to new realities.

We live in an industrial relations environment where the most militant sections of the working class are in the ranks of labour aristocracy — university lecturers, doctors, civil servants, teachers and pilots.

Majority working class have responded to falling real wages, not by striking, but by cutting down on consumption, walking to work, moving to low-rent quarters, and forfeiting leisure.

We are at an age where the legal machinery for resolving disputes is now totally dysfunctional.

The law prevents strikes in essential services. You must first report a dispute to the minister for Labour if you want to strike. If the minister does not respond within 21 days, you must go to the Industrial Court.

And, the minister has powers to declare strikes and work stoppages illegal until the full arbitration is exhausted. And this, of course, cannot guarantee industrial peace.