Trade unions still fighting for workers, says Cotu boss Francis Atwoli

Cotu Secretary-General Francis Atwoli

Cotu Secretary-General Francis Atwoli during a shop stewards meeting at Solidarity Building in Nairobi on April 29, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) has denied that trade unions in the country had lost the courage to fight for workers’ welfare, even as several employees and a former trade unionist admitted to struggles that had left workers unrepresented.

In a statement responding to a story carried by the ‘Nation’ on Monday (September 18) on the state of trade unions in the country, Cotu boss Francis Atwoli accused the newspaper of publishing what he described as misleading information. He said unions remain committed to defending workers’ rights while recognising that Kenya is currently facing economic challenges.

“With a membership of over four million workers, COTU (K) is the second largest trade union in Africa and therefore continues to effectively represent workers locally and internationally. We firmly believe in the principles of social dialogue, tripartism and peaceful conflict resolution. We recognise that our role as a responsible trade union is to engage constructively with government, employers and other key stakeholders to advance the rights and interests of workers,” wrote Mr Atwoli.

“In these trying times, it is imperative that we work together to stabilise the economy, preserve jobs and create an environment conducive to sustainable economic growth,” he added.

Mr Atwoli, who was interviewed for the story, went on to accuse unnamed editors of blackmailing organisations and individuals, without providing any evidence.

But workers contacted by the ‘Nation’ said that the unions representing them were facing challenges, mainly because they were being silenced by employers.

“They are afraid that if they go against the wishes of the government and the Teachers Service Commission, the government will push the button and teachers will leave the unions. They are not in a position to help teachers. Teachers don’t benefit at all,” a teacher said.

A doctor, who is a member of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, said that while he understood his union’s efforts to champion doctors’ welfare issues, factors such as the employment of doctors on contract and the failure of doctors to join the union or participate in union activities when called upon had diluted its efforts.

Former Kenya National Union of Teachers secretary-general Wilson Sossion also admitted that unions in the country had been rendered more or less useless. He said unions currently lack independence, internal democracy and the freedom to agitate for workers’ welfare.

“Unions need to be independent in order to agitate for workers’ rights and that is currently lacking. The last government paralysed the unions when it used the State machinery to remove me from Knut. Unions were silenced by the regime of (former president) Uhuru Kenyatta. This intimidated other secretaries general from speaking out. Now unions are afraid to agitate for fear of losing contracts and government reprisals,” he said.

“It will take time for the unions to regain their voice and the workers will remain seriously unrepresented. The unions will be silent for a long time,” he added.

Unions were divided this year when the government proposed the introduction of a compulsory housing fund contribution, which was later changed to a levy. Those who supported it, including Mr Atwoli, said it was because workers were entitled to a refund of their contributions with interest. When the contribution was later changed to a levy, the unions were largely silent.