Why are Strike Actions by Kenyan Workers Always Failing?

December 8, 2011

News & Analysis

A Doctor carrying a placard during the on-going strike

Historically, Kenyan workers have always taken strike actions to demand higher wages in the face of spiraling inflation precipitated by run-away prices of consumer commodities. With starvation wages, deplorable working conditions and poor remuneration, conditions for industrial actions are permanently present among the working people of Kenya.

In September this year, public schools were shut down following a national strike that had been called by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) to demand the employment of an extra 28,000 teachers to ease an acute shortage of teachers that had led to congestion in classrooms. After four days, the strike was called off after the government promised to employ 23,000 teachers, a promise that is yet to be fulfilled.

Just as the teachers were returning to work, lecturers at Kenya’s public universities downed their tools demanding a pay rise to a maximum of Ksh 400.000 per month at the professor level, up from Ksh 165,000. An assortment of pay hikes were also proposed for the lower ranks but as public universities were shut and students sent home when the strike began to bite, the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) that called the strike announced that it was calling it off to allow for talks with the government “in two weeks”. Since then, nothing has happened.

While teachers appear to have won a small concession from the government, the lecturers emerged empty handed because no serious talks are continuing between UASU and the government to address the main reasons why the strike was called.

Although teachers accepted to return to work on the basis of a sheer promise, there is no guarantee that the government will honour its side of the deal because in the past, the same government has notoriously violated such deals with impunity.

In fact, every major strike action that has ever been taken by Kenyan workers in the last few decades has either winded up with empty promises, weak concessions between the government and workers’ representatives or outright defeat, leaving workers demoralized and hopeless.

As the lecturers continue to wait for talks between their Union and the government, and as teachers wait for details about the employment of 23,000 teachers as promised by the government, doctors in Kenya have just downed their tools thereby paralyzing public hospitals across the country. The latest is that the doctors have threatened to resign next week unless their grievances are addressed.

Predictably, the doctor’s strike will also end up with a fake compromise, a fake promise or defeat under some “return to work formula”. Some bogus negotiations will, no doubt, give rise to a fake deal.  In fact, the question that could be posed and which begs for answers is why strike actions by Kenyan workers are always failing. To dissect this question further, a deeper analysis might be necessary.

Lack of political support
A common feature in all strike actions taken by workers in Kenya is that they always lack political support. During the strike by teachers, University lecturers and now Doctors, no political party supported the workers including ODM, Narc Kenya, UDM and other parties seeking power next year.

When hiking of MPs salaries is being discussed in Parliament or when the issue of corruption scandal in the PM’s office comes up for debate, contributions are always fierce and endless. Demolition of houses in Nairobi even forced the government to set up a Committee to investigate the matter while when a controversial media bill was introduced for debate, political parties rushed to support or oppose the bill. Why is there a conspicuous silence when workers down their tools even if such actions lead to paralysis of key government institutions? Where are the vocal MPs who are always rushing to gain political mileage at every opportunity using every topic that can be exploited?

The answer is that the question of political support of industrial actions by workers is a hot potato within the capitalist ruling class. All political parties in Kenya practice politics from the point of view of capitalism and the economic problems that force workers into strike actions are created by the same rotten system. Since all parties are seeking power within the framework of the system, the leaderships of these parties cannot support workers’ struggles because in doing so, they would be digging their own graves in the event of a power take-over.

Although political parties can gain huge support from workers by supporting their struggles, leaderships of these parties are afraid of being seen to be on the side of workers because such positions are only taken by socialists whose core political ideas are based on the concept that workers ought to take over power from the capitalist ruling class so that they can run society and ensure that workers in all sectors earn a minimum living wage that can guarantee a decent living standard. To appreciate the socialist political thinking, one has to imagine what could happen if the striking doctors had workers’ representatives in Parliament who could institute debate and demand that the government address the doctor’s grievances just as it addressed the issue of MPs salaries.

The consequence of lack of political support is that striking workers are always alone. When they strike, they are usually left on the hands of leaders of their Unions empowered to “negotiate” with the government. In many cases, the Union leaders are usually compromised before they call off the strike using any excuse. In the absence of political support, the workers always lose and the current strike by doctors may have to take the same route. They will return to work after some fake deal is hammered by their Union or after the government makes another empty promise. What is the solution?

The Kenya Red Alliance has the answer – Set up a Workers’ Party and get genuine workers’ representatives in Parliament to fight for their rights otherwise the status quo will never change. This process is not easy but it is the way out. As long as workers in Kenya have no political representation or backing, they will continue to suffer one defeat after another following industrial actions.

There are more than 20 million workers in Kenya and if they vote as a block, workers can easily seize power in Kenya and kick out the thieving ruling class to pave the way for the re-organization of society by the very people who create wealth being misappropriated by the capitalist ruling class. This is why the Kenya Red Alliance was set up and this is why the Alliance continues to appeal to workers in Kenya to try and understand its politics and join it.

Starvation wages driving workers to the streets will only be abolished if workers can seize power and make decisions in a transparent and democratic society. The job of KRA is to organize workers to seize power so that a “Workers’ democratic system of government” can be established to permanently end the suffering of the people of Kenya. There is no need of MPs earning 1 million Kenyan shillings while some workers are living on less that Ksh 3.000. Kenyans must wake up and embrace new politics that can help change the country.

Okoth Osewe
Secretary, Kenya Red Alliance

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10 Comments on “Why are Strike Actions by Kenyan Workers Always Failing?”

  1. kofi Says:

    Kenyan doctors strike over pay, hospital equipment
    KATHARINE HOURELD, Associated Press
    Updated 10:38 a.m., Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Hundreds of doctors from public medical facilities marched through the Kenyan capital on Wednesday to demand a larger stock of drugs in their hospitals, better equipment and better pay.

    The doctors were on the third day of a countrywide strike. Teaching staff have been drafted to work at the hospitals to help fill the gap.

    One striking doctor, Dennis Miskellah, said that on his first day on the job at Kenyatta National Hospital he had to deliver a baby without gloves.

    “Can you imagine, in this era of HIV and AIDS, we don’t even have gloves at the country’s biggest public hospital?” he asked. “Sometimes we don’t even have IV lines.”

    Other doctors said their hospitals ran out of drugs for deadly illnesses like cholera or typhoid. Many said they knew of cases where patients had died because of the shortages.

    “We doctors refuse to be used just to certify deaths,” said Miskellah.

    The doctors said they wanted more drugs and equipment, a national plan to improve health care in Kenya, and higher wages. The starting wage for doctors in Kenya is about $400 a month. In contrast, members of parliament make around $11,000 a month — some of the highest wages for legislators in the world.

    “The politicians can afford to fly to America to get treatment, but what about the ordinary Kenyan?” asked Dr. Wambui Waithaka. “They are being forced to use hospitals where there are no supplies.”

    She said a colleague had died of renal failure because there were so few dialysis machines. When another doctor had a head injury, she said, colleagues paid to send him to a private clinic, fearing there would not be adequate treatment at the public hospitals. The doctor could not afford to pay for the clinic by himself because wages were so low, she said.

    A government spokesman did not return calls seeking comment, but doctors said the government’s best offer so far was an extra $300 a month to be phased in over the next three years. Kenyan inflation is at nearly 20 percent year over year.

    The doctors’ strike follows similar strikes by more than 7,000 university lecturers and 200,000 Kenyan teachers last month. They were protesting over overcrowded classes and low pay after it emerged the government has diverted $53 million earmarked for education to the defense ministry instead.

    Kenyan officials have repeatedly said that there is no money to increase the salaries of public sector workers because Kenya is involved in military operations in Somalia. Defense budgets are not publicly scrutinized.

  2. Mohikan Chiapas Says:

    Workers Party /Workers Party will be in a posion to take power in Kenya through mobilaization of all workers in Kenya And Stop Kikuyu hehemony and chauvinism in this Bonoba Republic Of Kenya>Here this guy spoke his mind and is in trouble for uttering what he thinks is Right>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTQ8wzLTnSM&feature=player_embedded#!

  3. Mohikan Chiapas Says:

    By Hassan Omar Hassan

    It is highly unlikely that Kenya’s next president would be a Kikuyu. President Kibaki is not the iconic Nelson Mandela. It did not matter at the point of Mandela’s exit as president of South Africa that a fellow Xhosa would succeed him.

    Yet Kibaki had an unparalleled opportunity to position himself as an iconic statesman, Africa’s reference point. We were at ‘Tahrir’ well before the Tunisians or Egyptians got there. Many then thought our democratic revolution of 2002 that ‘overthrew’ Moi and Kanu would give rise to the ‘African spring’.

    Apart from some expanded roads with flyovers and an economic growth index, Kibaki’s legacy reflects an unacceptable institutionalisation of ethnicity. The imbalances in the recruitments in Public Service as supported by the report by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to shameless dominance of all key sectors of Government. In 2002, it did not matter whether Kibaki or Uhuru Kenyatta became president.

    From the unfortunate look of things, ethnicity will impact on the choice of president in the 2012 General Election. The 2007 presidential election were too ethnically charged. The Waki and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reports on the 2007 post-election violence provided a clear background as to some of the circumstances leading to the violence. Ethnic exclusion and imbalances, perceived victimisation particularly of Moi’s Rift Valley communities among a host of inequities and injustices.

    You scar and bleed a nation when you willfully negate its sensitivities. To pass the microphone from one Njoroge to another, then to Nyoike and Murungi while addressing the soaring costs of energy. Or when Ndung’u passes the microphone to Kinyua then to Kenyatta to tell us why the shilling is losing ground. Or when the leadership of the country’s security apparatus is almost exclusively from Kibaki’s ethnic Kikuyu. You then wonder why there’s ethnicity in Kenya when the Government is working ‘tirelessly’ to patch your roads and build you new ones with flyovers. Kenyans are not idiots. We are a people endowed with sufficient talent, intellect and reason, alhamdulillah (Thank God)!

    A possible Uhuru victory is premised on the G7 Alliance holding together. It cultivates on the common belief that Prime Minister Raila Odinga is behind their Hague predicament and consolidates itself on account of demonising Raila. If the cases proceed to full trial upon confirmation the unifying factor around the ‘Raila theory’ will puncture.

    Many of the testimonies to the Waki Commission, the KNCHR and the Human Rights Watch on the violence in Rift Valley were from PNU co-ordinators and activists. I trust that a number of the Moreno-Ocampo witnesses in the Ruto case are too from this political divide. When the politics of the violence plays out at The Hague, many of the theories and conceptions would be demolished. The G7 Alliance, which provides a realistic formula for an Uhuru triumph might be unable to hold on account of these revelations.

    The chances of ‘Kibaki’s men’ succeeding Kibaki rest on high improbabilities. It is therefore puzzling to read reports of how some of these operatives are attempting to centralise power through the devolution bills or such nonsense as locking out popularly elected governors from County security committees. Wisdom would dictate that there is more reassurance and ‘protection’ in decentralising power and ‘weakening’ the influence of the centre. In trying to decimate the motivation, one wonders what the Kibaki men know or are planning. Can they imagine a successor dictator president from outside their axis with an overloaded centre who proclaims to follow in these footstep and kufuata nyayo!

  4. disgusted Says:

    Yet the Kenyan government is spending millions of shillings fighting Al Shabaab and their donkeys.

  5. tough life in Kenya Says:

  6. Kubaya Kenya Says:

  7. Mburu-Kanyingi Says:

    1st May 2003

    LABOUR DAY: MAJOR ISSUES FOR KENYAN WORKERS

    Kenyan Workers are celebrating this year’s Labour Day at a highly disadvantaged position. The celebration comes at a time when the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) with 240,000 members has issued a July strike notice to the newly elected government of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc). The regime has refused to implement a pay package that the teachers won after they downed their tools in 1998 to demand a pay rise during the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi.

    The labour day celebrations are also being held against a backdrop of an ongoing strike by locomotive drivers employed by the Kenya Railways Corporation. The drivers are demanding a salary increment of 25% that was awarded more than seven years ago by an Industrial court but which has not been implemented because the government claims that it has no money. The strike paralysed the railway network in the country forcing the Corporation to hire scabs from the pool of retired drivers to try and break the strike. Just as their teachers counterparts who have been waiting for 5 years for their salary increments, the drivers feel cheated that their salary hike has not been forth coming after seven years of waiting.

    For the Narc government, this year’s Labour day is a tense moment because on Friday April 25th, Doctors demanded that their pay be increased from Ksh 60,000 to 300,000 while they also called for the establishment of a Health Service Commission to carter for the remuneration of Health professionals in the country.

    The government is unable to pay teachers because it claims that it has not received money from IMF and World Bank and fresh calls from Doctors that their salaries be increased with a margin of Ksh 240,000 is likely to cause lots of indigestion to the Kibaki Administration. In fact, the best the government can hope for is that Doctors will not issue a strike notice or collaborate with teachers to stage a joint strike in July as a way of getting the government to act. Such a move would impact on other workers to take similar actions especially those whose strike actions have already been defeated through silence and inaction by the government.

    Strikes are becoming a natural option for marginalised and exploited workers
    Apart from the thorny issue of the implementation of the Teacher’s salary allowances and fresh demands by Doctors for a pay hike, this year’s Labour day is coming at a time when the Kenya Sugar Cane Growers Association (KESGA) has just called off the Cane farmers strike which lasted for two months. The farmers were demanding higher prices for cane deliveries. It appears that the strike was called off after KESGA leadership was compromised because there was no official explanation for the calling off of the strike.

    To be precise, strikes are increasingly becoming a natural option for marginalised and exploited workers in Kenya. In fact, the fundamental question is how a political alternative capable of converting the strikes into a struggle for power by Kenyan workers can materialise. As we write, employees from five Coffee cooperative societies in Gucha location in Kisii district are on strike demanding payment of outstanding dues for 27 months. According to press reports, the workers have totally paralysed operations at the giant coffee processing factories in Bomachoge constituency while the workers have also vowed to resume duty only after their pending dues are settled.

    It is like every worker in Kenya wants the wage situation reviewed or changed altogether. On Friday April 14th, the Kenya Veterinary Association demanded that their salaries be reviewed. Although the Association did not issue a strike threat, the message was the same – that the government should expect action if it cannot act.

    Strike threats and demands for higher wages aside, other significant developments have also been taking place within the workers movement in Kenya. The Kenya Electrical Trades and Allied Workers Union (Ketawu) has opposed a plan to retrench 900 workers from the giant State owned Kenya Power and Lightning Company (KPLC) that has also been earmarked for privatisation. The retrenchment plan was announced last month by Mr. Ochillo Ayako, the Minister of Energy, an announcement that created panic among workers at the company. The planned retrenchment is evidence that privatisation means loss of jobs.

    The situation was so tense that Mr. Samuel Njiru, a top official of Ketawu, had to issue a statement saying that “liquidity problems facing the industry are unlikely to be sorted out through staff reductions”. Ironically, the retrenchments were being planned at a time when, according to Mr. Njiru, KPLC was understaffed. The planned retrenchment is a contradiction of an electoral pledge by the Narc government to create half a million jobs every year while it also undermines President Kibaki’s message last month that since Narc took power, 7,000 jobs have been created. What Kenyans are witnessing as the new government stumbles on is a situation where instead of creating more jobs to try and put the 11 million unemployed Kenyans to work, the government is axing existing jobs thereby increasing the level of unemployment.

    Strike actions have ended in defeat because Workers are politically unorganised
    We could go on and on. But the major issues for Kenyan workers include a struggle against starvation wages, lack of political representation, lack of proper remuneration sufficient for a decent standard of living, violation of the right to collective bargaining, lack of job security and lack of freedom to form independent and fighting Trade Unions with full rights to link up with International Workers organisations.

    The big illusion drawing the Workers’ struggle backwards is that workers believe that the liberal bourgeoisie opportunists they elect to Parliament at each and every election can represent them and struggle for a change of their poor economic and social conditions. Teachers voted as a block believing that a Narc government would implement their salary allowances in January. But after being betrayed and told that they have to wait for ten years, and after witnessing MPs raise their monthly salaries to almost a million Kenyan shillings immediately after the ninth Parliament was opened, teachers have resorted to the tactics they used against the former dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi – strike action. KSDA has already welcomed the July strike notice.

    From our perspective, strike actions alone are not enough to change the immediate situation of workers in Kenya. Since January this year, at least 30 industrial actions by frustrated workers have been witnessed in Kenya with some strikes spilling over into the streets and turning violent. In extreme cases, riot police have been called in to brutalise workers demanding higher wages. But all these actions have ended in defeat and many of the demands that were being made by striking workers were not met. This is because Trade Unions are weak while Kenyan Workers are not yet organised politically under a Worker’s Party to fight for their interests. Without new initiatives, the situation will not change. Our position is that there is need for workers to be represented in Parliament so that their interests can be raised and debated directly by workers’ representatives practicing politics under a Workers’ Party armed with a Workers program of action. Because of their key role in production of wealth, workers deserve a say in the running of the government and distribution of resources.

    Kenyan workers are celebrating this year’s Labour day with a deep sense of dejection. They continue to live in poverty while the Unions, which are supposed to represent them and fight for their interests, have a long tradition of working with a corrupt government after their leaders were bought off by State agents. A pathetic example is the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) that was effectively an extension of the Moi/KANU dictatorship which was defeated in the December elections. Thousands of workers in Kenya have been retrenched under IMF/World Bank programs without Union or State intervention. Wages are low, remunerations are poor while certain basic rights like the right to form or join a Union do not exists for many workers.

    As workers celebrate Labour day, our solidarity goes to the suffering Kenyan teachers preparing for their July strike action, the exploited seafarers whose efforts to link up with International workers’ organisations have been frustrated by the Kenyan government for years, marginalised long distance truck drivers working under impossible conditions, EPZ workers who were sacked after downing their tools to demand higher wages, Tax collectors whose grievances have been ignored for years, Oral workers whose salaries have not been adjusted for decades and Locomotive drivers currently on strike in Kenya. We remember all retrenched workers from different sectors as a result of IMF/World Bank programs and casual workers who have been denied the right to permanent employment after holding their jobs for more than a decade.

    This year’s Labour day should serve as another reminder to workers in Kenya that they need to organise and compete for political power because leaving their crucial interests on the hands of wealth grabbers and other looters in Parliament has not delivered a single victory. Throughout the world, workers are struggling to capture State power and Kenyan workers should not be left behind.

    Okoth Osewe
    Secretary,
    Kenya Socialist Democratic Alliance (KSDA

  8. crying for kenyan workers Says:

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