Weaker unions spell doom for workers

As national economic woes mount, the work of trade unions is becoming more challenging. When employers are faced with increasing costs, they freeze employment and salary increases and lay off workers, weakening unions.

The primary role of unions is to protect members’ interests and campaign for improved remuneration. Unions have been undermined by loss of membership. In fact, the death of unions could be beckoning.

Trade unions have always been a thorn in the flesh for governments since the colonial days. While May 1 was the day the government would without fail announce a minimum wage increase, this is no longer guaranteed. Trade unions have lost their spark and the annual labour celebrations are no longer exciting.

In the past, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) would take two to three years to fully implement or union leaders would call strikes. Today, a teachers’ CBA signed in 2016 has not been implemented. As a result, teachers continue to earn much less than they are entitled to. The members of Kenya National Union of Nurses have not enjoyed a pay increase in the past seven years.

In the past, the government keenly listened to demands by doctors, nurses and others for pay increments. Devolution has weakened their unions. Union leaders have accused the government of undermining the CBAs through the introduction of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) that determines the remuneration of public servants without negotiating with them.

SRC chairperson Lyn Mengich has conceded that in the past three years, it has only approved just 13 per cent of the Sh98.8 billion additional salary and allowance requests. Another challenge for unions is that many employers in the public and private sectors now hire workers on short contracts. They see no value in joining unions.

The employment of casual workers has more than doubled to 134 per cent, while the hiring of regular staff has grown by only 29 per cent. Technology has also presented another disruption, resulting in layoffs and undermining unions.  Strong and viable unions are a workers’ right that should not be emasculated.