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November 21, 2018

Trade unions, ministry clash over amendments to labour laws

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli with Labour CS Ukur Yattan at St Stephen's ACK in Nairobi during prayers for labour unions, April 29, 2018. /JOSEPH NDUNDA
Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli with Labour CS Ukur Yattan at St Stephen's ACK in Nairobi during prayers for labour unions, April 29, 2018. /JOSEPH NDUNDA

Trade unions have vowed to block legal amendments seeking to bar government officials who provide essential services from participating in strikes.

The government is proposing miscellaneous amendments to the Labour Relations Act, for workers in healthcare, water, sanitation, electricity and telecommunication services sectors to continue reporting to work during strikes.

The proposal also covers fuel distributors, meteorologists, providers of air navigational services, port workers and firefighters.

The government is seeking to slap a Sh500,000 fine, with the alternative of three-months in imprison, on union officials, should the strikes they call disrupt the provision of essential services.

But Wilson Sossion, Secretary General of Trade Unions Congress of Kenya (TUC-Ke), said the law is meant to claw back trade unions' achievements in the fight for workers' rights.

Sosion noted that section 41 (2) of the Constitution grants every worker the right to join a trade union and go on strike, rights which cannot be withdrawn.

"You cannot put [the proposed] changes through miscellaneous amendments. They must go through public participation. Iin the spirit of the handshake, those laws should be retracted."

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli said workers are opposed to the changes.

"The Constitution does not segregate. It does not say 'a worker from essential services'. That was the language in colonial archaic labour laws [that was meant] to deny workers the right to join organisations of their choices.

"Utakuwa mshenzi sana (you would be very selfish) to reintroduce essential services in Kenya after more than 60 years. Eventually we will go to court and win. I am sure we will annul it."

But Labour CS Ukur Yattani, who proposed the legal changes, defended them, saying Kenya must cease operating under labour laws enacted in the 1960s.

Regarding sections that may be unconstitutional in the proposed changes, he said Parliament will deal with them.

"Parliament will look at the laws ... this is the role of MPs ... if they don't agree with us there will be no problem because we believe they will do so in the interests of all people."

He noted the need for harmony by actors in the labour sector.

Sossion and Yattani spoke at St Stephens Church along Jogoo Road on Sunday, during labour unions' prayers day ahead of Labour Day on Tuesday.

Speaking separately, Kenya National Union of Nurses Secretary General Seth Panyako said the government should stop "sickening" Kenyan workers with revisions of labour laws.

Panyako accused employers and the government of using mental and psychological torture to harm workers

"The laws you are revising are affecting workers [negatively]. The laws and the NHIF and NSSF Acts are stressing workers, employers, Cotu and its affiliate organisations,” he said.

He spoke on Saturday during a function to mark World Day For Safety and Health at Work (Safe Day), at National Industrial Training Authority in Athi River, Machakos county.

Panyako said Cotu will not quit NHIF since it is a workers’ institution, not one for employers' or the government.

“The NHIF is fully funded by you workers," he told a cheering crowd. "The NHIF is purely funded by workers. Asking workers to chicken out of the organisation ... is it fair?” 

He added that the government has no moral authority to remove workers from their organisation.

Read: State seeks to kick out Atwoli and Mugo from NSSF board

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