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Striking Out: How Kenya’s Unions Have Gone from Hero to Zero


The recent teachers’ strike reveals how Kenya‘s once formidable unions have become emasculated and divided at the time when they are needed most

21 AUGUST 2013 – 1:08PM | BY ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

Sit down for your rights: members of one of Kenya’s trade unions sit down in a courtyard in Nairobi. Photograph by Paulien Osse.

Nairobi, Kenya:

The July teachers’ strike in Kenya started with a roar and ended with a whimper. Calling for improved salaries and allowances, 200,000 defiant teachers, largely under the banner of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), went on strike for almost amonth, but when it all ended, their union leaders were seen by many to have capitulatedto government pressure.

During the strike, the government employed a whole host of tactics to end the allegedly illegal civil action. They cut deals with the post-primary school teachers union (KUPPET) to undermine the primary school teachers union, blackmailed teachers by threatening stop their salaries, and criminalised the trade union’s leaders on charges of contempt of court.

In the end, the unions compromised on a deal with Deputy President William Ruto. This came as a disappointment for some teachers who had been engaged in the civil action, but perhaps all the more worrying was the way in which the events revealed the harsh realities faced by labour unions in Kenya more broadly today. Once formidable workers’ unions have been emasculated, the general public seems indifferent – if not contemptuous – of them, and, politically-speaking, ‘union’ has become a dirty word.

Moreover, the willingness to compromise and the disunited front on display in the strike may have set an unforgiving precedent for future union-government engagements.

The decline of the unions

In the period leading up to Kenyan independence in 1963, unions provided one of the most significant platforms for agitating for the rights of Kenyan workers, and even contributed to the nationalist movement by providing a forum for political debate.

Led by the likes of charismatic independence leader Tom Mboya, worker’s unions were effectively used as means of pursuing decolonisation. When other leaders were detained and political parties banned during the state of emergency declared in the wake of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952, Mboya continued to use his extensive network within the global labour movement in order to spotlight the colonial atrocities in Kenya and call for independence.

Fast-forward to now, however, and unions are no longer the vibrant social movements they once were. They are divided internally and, together, fail to present a united front in the fight for workers’ rights. Despite the poor working conditions faced by almost all low-income workers, unions have failed to coalesce and organise around big issues.

Their electoral leverage has also declined considerably, and the new generation of union leaders appears more inclined to cosy up to politicians than push the workers’ agenda. This is partly due to governments’ success in making life difficult for recalcitrant unions through the arrest of union leaders, its failure to provide protection from employers firing workers for joining unions, and the criminalisation of nearly all strikes.

In fact, revealing just how far their stock has fallen, the very word ‘union’ has become stigmatised in political discourse and even in much of the popular press. The Nation’s usually mild-tempered journalist Macharia Gaitho, for example, referred to Wilfred Sossion, the leader of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), as “the new face of labour militancy” in an opinion piece, despite the fact that there was nothing particularly ‘militant’ about the way the union demanded the government honour its contractual obligations.

Corporate takeover

Both inside and outside government circles, criticism of the teachers’ strike has tended to have been articulated in the language of business, expressing the widespread notion that the market is the antidote to poor governance and all social ills. According to this line of thinking, problems are rarely systemic, but rather the result of pesky inefficiencies that can be fixed with better data, the right technology, and smarter corporate methods.

Despite its unpopularity in many areas, in Kenya, ‘corporate-speak’ is mainstream, certainly in government. A deep faith in corporate-style governance was inaugurated by former president Mwai Kibaki – himself an economist and one of the most successful businessmen in Kenya – and under current president Uhuru Kenyatta, this philosophy has only deepened. In fact, in Kenyatta’s cabinet, the most prized qualification for appointment seems to have been corporate experience, exemplified by the appointment of Adan Mohamed, a Harvard graduate and former Barclays managing director, to the position of Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation and Enterprise Development.

The assumption amongst many senior government officials then is that the market is a panacea for all troubles, and that unions are a mortal enemy in this project in that they aim to distort the market and reward inefficiency. But this market-led mindset falls down when not all government services are responsive to the rigours of business, and is particularly dangerous in a troubled economy with a limited social safety net. This makes the decline of unions all the more worrying.

Who represents workers?

The terminal weakening of workers’ unions removes a crucial bulwark against the state’s authoritarianism and workplace discrimination. Kenya generally prides itself on a vibrant media, active civil society, growing middle class and its new constitution. Yet the media in the last election failed to ask some critical questions, and if such spaces for alternative voices continue to shrink, the government and corporations will have ever more limited incentives to listen to the vulnerable and marginalised.

If the teachers’ union, one of the strongest and one whose workforce provides such a critical service, could be forced into submission so easily, it follows that smaller unions such as the health workers union could be dismissed with even less protest.

In an era when multi-national corporations with dubious labour records flock to Kenya, the need for vibrant and effective workers’ unions has never been more crucial.

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