What struck me as I followed the celebrations to mark Nation Media Group’s 60th anniversary last week were the long-service awards.
I learnt that a staff member by the name Noor Kanani has devoted a remarkable 48 years of her life working for the company. It was also remarkable that all those who had worked for the company for 25 years were honoured.
NMG stands out because employers who offer ‘jobs for life’ are a dying breed in this country. Even though the ceremony was a mundane affair, discerning observers must have noticed that it was an opportunity for the company to know that its responsibility to society goes beyond paying tax and turning a profit to shareholders.
Indeed, as they struggle to add to our gross domestic product, a good employer must also strive to add the ‘gross national happiness’.
As I’ve argued in this column before, we miss the point when we brag about how our economy is posting high growth rates. We must look at how our society is progressing in terms of quality of life. The basic gauge of a society’s worth is its ability to provide citizens with an opportunity to do decent work.
The reason I found NMG’s long-service award ceremony remarkable was because it came on the heels of an announcement by the chairman of the Public Service Commission, Mr Stephen Kirogo, that the government would stop hiring on permanent and pensionable terms. Have they considered the likely impact on the stock of decent and permanent jobs in our labour market?
If the government — the employer of last resort in our labour market with the largest number of permanent and pensionable jobs in its employ — adopts the policy of hiring staff on three-year contract terms, how is the broader market for jobs likely to behave? Is it really conceivable that the private sector will step in to close the gap it is leaving and start giving more long-term jobs?
As a society, we don’t seem to care about the fact that we are not offering good and quality jobs to the citizens.
Jobs must, first and foremost, be productive. But I think we are at a point where we should start celebrating corporate bodies more for the contributions they make towards quality of life issues.
In my view, an employer who provides and retains decent and long-term jobs contributes much more to the standards of living within society than those who allocate millions of shillings to corporate social responsibility programmes. Work is very important to a human being because we spend more time at workplaces than at home.
It’s remarkable, indeed, that Ms Kanani, the longest-serving employee at NMG, has been waking up every morning for nearly half a century to go to one workplace. How you spend your time, how you relate to others at the workplace — be it your peers, superiors or subordinates — has a big impact on your sense of well-being.
Which is why, when you lose your job, it is not just the loss of income that will bother you; it’s your sense of self-worth. Joblessness is associated with many social maladies — from increasing divorce cases to alcoholism and high suicide rates.
As young economic journalists in the 1990s, we all believed in what the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund was telling us when we supported import liberalisation and policies such as privatisation and austerity.
When I look back at the damage that these Bretton Woods policies did to the capacity of our economy to generate decent permanent jobs to its people, I feel that the biggest mistake we made was to ignore the social impact of structural adjustment policies on society. We swallowed too much of the neoliberal thinking that we were being fed without asking questions and interrogating the policies for social impact.
Allow me to give two examples of how society lost hundreds of thousands of permanent and pensionable jobs through the policy of privatisation.
At the time the defunct Telkom Kenya was being privatised in 2000, the state-owned company had a massive 17,480 permanent and pensionable workers. The corporation also invested heavily in staff housing.
And at the point the defunct Kenya Railways Corporation was being prepared for privatisation, the state-owned company had a massive 10,500 permanent and pensionable workers in its workforce.
We killed all these decent jobs in the hope that the new efficient and profitable institutions we were creating from the ashes of these state-owned entities would replace the decent jobs that we had lost.
But it did not happen.
Mr Kirogo should conduct a thorough social audit on the likely impact on the society of the proposal to abolish permanent and pensionable jobs in the civil service. It does not make sense at all.