PANDEMIC EFFECTS

Labour Day: Which way for employers and employees in virus times?

In Summary

• Cotu secretary Francis Atwoli insists that whereas the pandemic has hit the labour sector, they will fight off any attempts to lay off workers.

• The CS noted that the coronavirus has affected the labour sector, adding that he has already initiated talks with Central Organization of Trade Unions and the Federation of Kenya Employers.

President Uhuru Kenyatta converses with COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli during celebrations marking Labour Day at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. PSCU
President Uhuru Kenyatta converses with COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli during celebrations marking Labour Day at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. PSCU

Today, workers would ordinarily throng Uhuru Park not only to celebrate their input into the economy but also listen to an announcement from the government with hope of an increase in minimum wages.

However, this year’s celebration will be far different, there will be no gathering, no song and dance and for some workers, they are staring at job losses or salary cuts as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are felt.

 

While the government has eased taxation that could have burdened the thousands of workers as a way of mitigating the effects of coronavirus which has hit the economy, it will be remembered that last year, the workers went home empty handed.

Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui early this week told the Star that his Ministry is “doing all it can to find solutions to prevent far-reaching actions being taken by employers”.

The CS noted that the coronavirus has affected the labour sector, adding that he has already initiated talks with Central Organization of Trade Unions and the Federation of Kenya Employers.

“I want to thank FKE and Cotu for being patriotic Kenyans. In normal circumstances, the Ministry of Labour would be looking for enforcement, issues to do with compliance and to some extent taking some employers to court who don’t comply with labour laws. But we are now in a unique circumstance,” he said.

Chelugui added: “This pandemic has affected both the employer and the employee. Since the virus was declared a pandemic, my ministry has had five meetings with the social partners and we have come up with a number of resolutions which will guide the employee and the employer during the period.”

He said some employers have agreed to allow employees to proceed on annual leave for 30 days and should the situation not change, the employees be given extra 15 days.

“All these are the normal annual leave days which the workers will be entitled to full pay,” he noted.

 

Chelugui said should be situation not have changed after the 45 days, then employers should consider putting the workers on half pay which will be followed by employees taking unpaid leave until the effects of coronavirus on businesses ease.

“At no time have we suggested that employer will declare redundancies or terminate employment notwithstanding the existing contractual agreements between employees and employers,” he said.

“While we care for employees in terms of welfare and ensuring that there is social order through earnings and stability at household level, we also need to care about employers because labour, yes is a factor of production but once production is stopped, the employer has lost ability to sustain employment and we cannot force them to pay salaries in an unproductive environment.,” he added.

He said his Ministry is trying to mediate to the benefit of both the employer and the employee.

FKE CEO Jacqueline Mugo said amid negative impact of coronavirus on the economy, employers are reviewing all options available.

In a telephone interview with the Star, Mugo said employers are in talks with the ministry of Labour and Cotu on how to proceed should the disease persist in the country.

“We are still in discussion with the Labour Ministry and Cotu on a formal agreement on how to handle employee issues but sending staff on paid leave, salary cuts and review of existing employment contacts are viable options on the table,” she said.

On the decision by President Uhuru Kenyatta to order the resumption of business by hotels and restaurants, Mugo lauded the move, saying it will ensure workers resume earning.

She noted that the government is doing a commendable job in putting the virus under control but warned that Kenyans were yet to fully embrace the measures put in place such as social distancing and wearing masks.

“The President outlined a cautious approach on gradual opening of businesses in non " hotspot" areas which will depend on data on the spread of Covid-19. We need to support government efforts to reduce infections and flatten the curve if we are to see return to normal operations,” she said.

Cotu secretary Francis Atwoli insists that whereas the pandemic has hit the labour sector, they will fight off any attempts to lay off workers.

“We have had several tripartite meetings with the Ministry of Labour under the chairmanship of Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui and during these meetings , parties have floated a number of options and in all these, the issue of sacking of workers has never featured anywhere .We are determined to oppose any attempts by all means,” Atwoli said.

The vocal unionist however said Cotu will not relent in embracing social dialogue with all the stakeholders to get solutions aimed at protecting all workers.