For the first time as Head of State, Dr William Ruto will tomorrow lead workers in marking Labour Day even as tales of pain and suffering dominate Kenyan lives as a result of the cash crunch and high cost of living.
Thousands of civil servants faced salary delays last month. The situation is more grim in counties where employees have not been paid for more than two months.
President Ruto will be facing the workers when his proposal for civil servants to contribute three per cent of their monthly pay to a Housing Fund has triggered an uproar.
In an interview with the Sunday Nation, Labour Principal Secretary Geoffrey Kaituko told civil servants that the government is doing everything in its power to improve their welfare.
Mr Kaituko – who confirmed that Dr Ruto would grace the celebrations – revealed plans for a bill that would ensure proper compensation of employees in the event of injury or death at the workplace.
The PS also talked about reforms meant to protect Kenyan workers abroad, particularly in the Middle East.
He weighed in on the proposed Housing Fund, highlighting its benefits while assuring civil servants that there would be public participation before it is implemented.
Q: What should workers expect on this first Labour Day under Kenya Kwanza government?
A: The labour force of a country is the most important factor of production. Kenya has the best workforce in the world. The government will speak to workers on Labour Day on a wide range of things we have been doing to improve their welfare and productivity.
This is a government that was elected primarily by people at the bottom of the economy.
The chief guest during this year’s celebrations will be President Ruto. He has confirmed attendance and his speech will highlight plans by the government for workers in Kenya.
Should the workers expect a pay raise?
We need to allow President Ruto to speak on that. That is above my pay grade.
Workers and Kenyans in general are facing hard economic times. They now have to contend with delayed salaries and a high cost of living. What assurances is the government giving them?
It is in the public domain that the economic situation is tough. Let government employees know that they will get their salaries. Measures are being put in place to fix the current problem. It is a temporary situation.
Workers should know that everything will stabilise in a short while. I can assure the employees that their welfare will be catered for.
There is this proposal by the President for civil servants to contribute three per cent of their salaries to a Housing Fund. What informed this decision?
This is a significant policy direction. As part of expanding housing coverage for every Kenyan, we may have to come up with more sustainable ways of financing it. It is on that basis that the government is proposing a three per cent contribution.
Certainly, that proposal will be subjected to public participation. No law can come into force without the participation of Kenyans.
It will certainly circulate among ordinary Kenyans before going to the National Assembly and Senate. Even parliamentary committees are allowed to conduct more public participation.
I encourage Kenyans to support this proposal. In Tanzania, where I am just from, contribution to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) is 10 per cent. The employee pays 10 per cent and the employer matches with another 10 per cent.
Here, the employee and employer jointly contribute six per cent. NSSF resources in Tanzania finance major infrastructural projects. Tanzania does not borrow from other sources because of the contributions of workers. The alternative to what the President is proposing is for us to seek external funding and loans to finance our projects.
President Ruto wants us to raise resources and build houses that citizens can own. Three is not a huge percentage. It is an investment.
Some trade unions are already up in arms against this proposal by the government.
That is a knee-jerk reaction. They should have studied it first and consulted before reacting. When you propose an idea, I should first listen and then either engage or consult further before reacting. I should react from a position of understanding.
One of the arguments against this proposed funding is that there are already too many other deductions on top of taxes, leaving little as a take-home for workers.
What Kenyans need to know is that all these are investments. The National Healthy Insurance Fund (NHIF) is taking care of their medical expenses. The proposed three per cent Housing Fund is meant to cater for their welfare too. The government wants everybody to have dignified shelter. The NSSF is an investment for your retirement. Instead of retiring into poverty with the Sh200 contribution, what if you retire with Sh5 million. We need to shift our mindsets.
Don’t you think the government should have engaged workers through their unions before coming up with some of these proposals?
The President of Kenya has the mandate of setting the agenda. When he sets that agenda, Kenyans shape it through public participation. You cannot tell the President to consult first before making a policy announcement. We look at reasons given by the public, even from those opposed to the proposals.
How would you describe the labour movement in Kenya? There is a perception that the government is stifling trade unions.
Trade unions are vibrant. The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) is a key player on issues touching on the welfare of workers. The unions are at times their own worst enemies. They fight one another and create splinter groups.
I have witnessed officials fighting, with some of the cases ending up in court. Some will tell you to only engage with this set of officials. Union politics is bad.
The government has not interfered with the running of unions or stifled them. As long as they are procedurally registered and meet the requirement of law, we allow them to do their work.
We cannot allow unions with unscrupulous officials to operate. But generally, that is a space that we have allowed to thrive. More unions are still being registered. It appears to be a lucrative business.
How would you want the unions to operate?
We certainly prefer to have fewer and stronger unions that are self-regulating. When people want to form splinter groups, we cannot stop them so long as they meet the requirements.
There is this new proposal to have a Workers' Compensation Authority. What is it and how will it operate?
It is a form of social security in which employers contribute to some kitty. When you get injured at your place of work, your employer files a claim. The claim is then taken to the Compensation Fund.
The current system is adversarial. We wait until you are involved in an accident or you die then start going after the employer.
From experience, it becomes a protracted battle as an employer may not want to pay. In Tanzania, the employer contributes and the Fund takes care of everything in the event of an injury or death.
We will agree on how much employers need to contribute for their workers. It will be a small amount. This is an idea that we are borrowing from neighbouring Tanzania. The ministry will draft a bill and take it to Parliament before we can repeal the current law.
How is the Ministry of Labour handling the issue of Kenyan domestic workers in the Gulf following endless complaints and grim reports?
You must have noticed that there have been no distress cases in the last four months. It is because of the intervention by the government. The Cabinet Secretary and her team flew to Saudi Arabia and met our counterparts there. We realised that 90 per cent of the issues that were affecting Kenyans in Saudi Arabia originated from Nairobi.
We now hold a virtual meeting to discuss the welfare of Kenyan workers in Saudi Arabia every two weeks. That engagement has meant that we review the pre-departure curriculum. We have also reduced the number of agencies involved from 900 to 592.
Some realised that they couldn't work under the new rules and closed doors.
We insist on the physical appearance of directors before the vetting committee. Their offices must be inspected and bank accounts audited.
We have weeded out rogue agents. More reforms are ongoing. The ministry wants to see Kenyans working abroad protected.