The sorry state of the Kenyan worker
Published on May 25, 2008, 12:00 am
By Lillian AluangaDespite being touted as one of the country’s worst years, 2008 has brought unexpected glad tidings for Francis Ojwang. While many Kenyans would want to forget the unprecedented wave of violence that hit the country after a disputed election, Ojwang will remember this as the year he earned the highest amount of money as a construction worker.
For the past two weeks, Ojwang, has earned Sh500 per day as a mason at a construction site near Wilson airport in Nairobi.
|Loaders at work at the Mombasa port. Picture by Maarufu Mohamed|
He says he still cannot believe his luck.
But things have not always been this way. Ojwang’s first job at Nyayo Highrise in 1996 earned him Sh80 per day as a handyman.
“Working in the construction industry is not easy because you are always exposed to risks. I love what I do but our working conditions are not good,” he says.
Ojwang leaves his single-roomed house in Kibera at about 6.30am and takes one hour to reach the construction site.
Depending on his financial situation, Ojwang may take a cup of tea and mandazi for breakfast. But when there is no money, he simply leaves for work on an empty stomach.
“I have two orphans to take care of and siblings to help back at home. Sometimes when my budget is spread thin, I skip breakfast and eat a plate of githeri for lunch. Sometimes, I can only afford one meal in a day,” he says.
Ojwang’s story is replicated among thousands of Kenyan workers in lower income brackets, struggling under poor working conditions with little pay to show for their labour.
The story is the same in several parts of the country, stretching from Naivasha’s flower farms to the vast sisal estates in Taita and Taveta districts, tea plantations in Nandi, coffee estates in central Kenya, the port of Mombasa and sugarcane farms in Western Province.
Struggle for survival
With families to feed and few alternatives in the job market, this cadre of workers continues to suffer in silence. They can only hope for a better day, when their wages and conditions will improve.
Generations of families have been born on these large farms, all getting into a cycle of poverty whose grip appears to be doing anything but loosening its hold on their future.
“What can we do? We must survive and so we take on any job that is available,” Ojwang says.
Over the years, Ojwang has worked on various construction sites in Kileleshwa, Runda, and Upperhill, earning between Sh150 and Sh350 per day.
As he speaks, Ojwangs adjusts the nylon bags tied to his feet before squeezing them into a pair of worn-out sneakers.
“We don’t get any boots so we have to improvise to protect our feet from cement,” he says.
Then there are the rickety ladders on site.
“I saw a man fall once from the second storey of a building on Argwings Khodek road, breaking a rib and a leg,” he adds.
These are just some of the challenges Ojwang says construction workers have to contend with. Those who paint for many years, he says, also get complications in later stages.
“These paints have chemicals and no face masks are provided for the painters. It is recommended that painters drink at least a packet of milk everyday but that never happens,” he says.
An acting Deputy Labour Commissioner at the ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development, Mr Stephen Mbae, says the lucrative flower industry accounts for some of the largest number of workers in the agriculture sector. This in in comparison to the sugar, sisal, coffee, pyrethrum and tea sectors.
Mbae, who is in charge of Field Services, says the definition of the term ‘Kenyan worker’ is vast. It ranges from the CEOs of major organisations, middle income earners to the lower income earners, down to the househelps, gardeners and guards, he says.
“When we talk of the Kenyan worker we sometimes forget that even that gardener, maid and herdsman in our homes is a Kenyan worker. The term does not only refer to those hired by companies,” he says.
Mbae says employers have no right to bar workers from joining a union. But he also decries the lack of awareness among workers on the unions that exist to represent them. “Section 80 of our Constitution provides for freedom of association, and therefore no employer should restrict his workers from joining a union of their choice,” he says.
To prevent the practice of too many unions representing every kind of craft, Mbae says it is common for companies to merge and form associations, through which to negotiate with workers’ unions.
“There are cases where workers are afraid to join unions because of victimisation by their employers, but there are others where workers simply don’t know that a union exists to represent their interests,” says the official.On this score, Mbae squarely lays blame on unions, which he says, have not been up to scratch in educating workers on their rights.
With regards to better terms of service, Mbae says unions are expected, after every two years, to negotiate for better terms for workers. Mbae cites the Sectoral Order, General Order and Collective Bargaining Agreements as tools used to determine what workers should earn, adding that the ministry always opts for what is most favourable for the employees.
A Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) refers to an agreement on terms and conditions of employment made between a trade union and an employer, group of employers or an employers’ organisation. The Sectoral Oder refers to terms and conditions set by wages councils which are to applied to some sectors.
A General Order usually applies to all sectors even when there is no Sectoral Order or CBA. Previously, the Government would come up with a General Order revising basic minimum wages every May 1.
“If say, for instance, a General Order provides that workers be paid Sh3,000, a Sectoral Order Sh2,900 and a CBA Sh3,200, then it is the CBA which will be enforced,” Mbae says.
“But if say for example after May I the General Order revises the basic minimum wage to Sh3,300, then this supercedes the CBA and is what the workers should earn,” he says.
Although employers’ associations entering into a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the trade unions are bound by its regulations, there has been concern over exemptions made for some companies.
Mbae says there are factors that should be considered when settling on basic minimum wage rates, such as areas where workers live and the cost of living in different places.
“It may not be fair to pay a flower worker say in Karen, Nairobi the same amount as one working on a rural farm or in Naivasha town,” he says.
According to the Regulations of Wages and Conditions of Employment Act, 2006, general labourers including cleaners, sweepers,gardeners, childrens ‘ayahs’, house servants, day watchmen and messengers working in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu should earn a basic minimum monthly wage(exclusive of house allowance) of Sh5,195. Those in the same cadre working in all other municipalities and Mavoko, Ruiru and Limuru town councils should get Sh4,792. Workers in this cadre working in all other areas of the country should, by law, earn a basic minimum monthly wage of Sh2,771.
Mbae however says the categories currently stipulated by law are too few and leave out many workers. But what of inspections and measures taken by the ministry to rein in errant employers?
Mbae says the Labour ministry carries out its inspections on a routine basis and whenever it receives complaints. It is during these inspections that labour officers also take time to educate both the workers and employers on labour laws. While conceding that the ministry has not conducted any studies to compare the state of the Kenyan workers to their counterparts in Africa and the world, Mbae says it would not be fair to do so since there are different parameters by which such comparisons could be made.
Although the newly crafted Employment Act, Labour Institutions Act, Labour Relations Act, Work Injury Benefits Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act are deemed to be ‘employee friendly’ workers may just have to wait a little longer to see things change.
Already, the High Court has temporarily halted the operation of the new laws, after an application by the Law Society of Kenya which took issue with a section of the Work Injury Benefits Act, which deprives employers the freedom to insure employers with a licensed insurer of their choice.
Also causing murmurs of discontent among employers is the proposal to have new fathers granted paternity leave and mothers given up to three months maternity leave with full pay.