|Workers were justified to be outraged on May Day over the failure by government to raise the minimum wage, especially in the face of such compelling economic justification for it.There appears to be confusion regarding the role of the government in the economy and whether it should continue to set a wage, rather than leaving it to employers to exploit workers in accordance with their needs.
Traditionally, that role has been defined by ideology. In a Marxist system, the government is the economy, in a capitalist one the economy is allegedly driven by the so-called market forces.
IN 1965, THROUGH THE NOW FAMOUS Sessional Paper No 10 titled ‘African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya,’ the post independence government tried to give an ideological framework to the management of the economy.
There was some creative thinking involved in trying to Africanise capitalism, an individualistic sort of system under which if you are clever and hardworking, you reap the rewards of your gifts.
If you are stupid and lazy, you are toast. African socialism, and all other variants of socialism, are communalistic, the individual is not the centre, he is looked at only through the prism of the group.
It is an outlook which lends itself very accessible to the African to whom even dinner is never served, it is eaten by the whole lot from the same pot.
The application of African socialism to the management of the economy was supposed to result in a form of capitalism whose fangs had been removed.
The government would intervene aggressively in the economy to protect not just the interests of the whole but also to secure benefits for the weakest, including the lowly paid worker. And of course the main accent was on the fact that we would pool our meagre resources to confront the big bad world out there.
Looking back 43 years with one of the widest income gaps in the world, Kenyan workers have a right to wonder whether what they have created could be further from a workers’ paradise.
Whereas politicians fleece the common man through extravagant salaries and a lavish lifestyle, in general terms their friends and business associates capture benefits from the government, through contracting, supplies and class-driven policy.
The political and bureaucratic class tax and spend without a conscience or pity to produce a bizzarely exploitative form of politician-eat-common-man feudalism.
The worker increasingly looks like a person who goes to a wedding bearing food and gifts but is not invited to sit and eat.
The President of Kenya earns Sh1.8 million a month, his ministers earn Sh1.2 million, their assistants Sh972, 667. MPs, the so-called people’s watchmen earn Sh851,000, the bulk of which is untaxed. The political elite feel no sense of obligation to contribute to that pool required by African Socialism.
WORKERS AT THE MINIMUM WAGE and without a pay rise will earn Sh5,395 for those in the industrial sector and Sh5,346 for those in agriculture.
The rate of inflation is 21 per cent which, if sustained throughout the year, will mean a loss of income of as much as a quarter in real terms for the workers are the base.
The income of a worker at the minimum wage is 0.6 per cent of that of an MP. That legislators see no contradiction in accepting that salary is further evidence of a class that is cauterised to the plight of the people they are meant to lead.
The pattern of government expenditure further reinforces this notion of a nation that toils to support the few.
Out of a budget of Sh570 billion which is to be spent in the current financial year, the government will use about Sh460 billion (80 per cent) to maintain itself and only 20 per cent on development. Some recurrent expenditure is admittedly specifically aimed at helping the poorest.
BUT THERE IS NO AGITATION IN THE political class or widespread recognition of the urgent need to spend less on the government and more on development.
Over the last six years, the size of the budget has grown in leaps and bounds as the system of taxation has become tighter; but the government’s appetite for money has grown apace.
The so-called productive sector comprising Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Cooperatives, Lands, Environment and Natural Resources, Regional Development Authorities, Tourism and Wildlife and Trade, have a contribution of 49.5 per cent to the economy. In the budget this sector was allocated Sh25 billion, only Sh4.3 billion of which went to development.
The worker is justified in feeling frustrated that he has been denied his routine meagre increment because of an economic crisis arising out of a political one created by the same political elite that is now soaking up the lion’s share of the public kitty.
These are revolutionary conditions.
The current government needs a firm kick in the seat of its pants. First, so that it can get the requisite reforms done and be done away with and replaced by a smaller, cheaper government.
Two, there needs to be nationwide agitation for the government to drastically scale back the money it is spending on itself.
Kenyans should insist on a 60:40 split, where development expenditure makes up 40 per cent of the budget, by 2012. A large bloated government that spends like a drunken sailor is of necessity anti-poor.
Third, there should be affirmative action to distribute wealth and help the poor improve their lot. For example, while encouraging an open and competitive system, the government should encourage rural-based groups such as cooperatives and youth organisations to take part in government procurement, especially for goods that they produce. A proposal targeting the youth in this respect and which was among the President’s campaign pledges must be honoured.
Finally, those in the political class who were instrumental in the post-election violence must be found and punished. This will go a small way in assuaging the suffering of Kenyans who now have to bear the brunt of their reckless politics.
Finally, President Kibaki needs to clarify in his conscience what socialism there is in the economic system over which he now presides. He needs to be alive to the reality that if politicians continue to tax the people and spend the money on themselves, they are planting the seeds of destruction as surely as those who preach ethnic hatred.