PLOT TO KILL TRADE UNIONS?

Medics wary as state starves unions of cash dues

Health CS Mutahi Kagwe last December instructed against remittance of dues to trade unions in the sector

In Summary

• Nurses say withholding of dues won't stop them from agitating for their rights.

• Doctors have held a meeting to deliberate on the issue, expected to announce their next course of action in the coming weeks 

KMPDU secretary general Chibanzi Mwachonda at a press conference in Nairobi on February 13, 2021
KMPDU secretary general Chibanzi Mwachonda at a press conference in Nairobi on February 13, 2021
Image: CHARLENE MALWA

There is palpable fear that health unions might soon follow in the footsteps of Knut or get crushed by the state altogether.

After a series of disagreements on the promotion, transfer and registration of teachers and several court battles, the tutors' employer has neutralised the Kenya National Union of Teachers.

The Teachers Service Commission refused to deduct and remit union dues for Knut, ostensibly to weaken the lobby.

Knut boasted of more than 187,000 members two years ago, but the number has dwindled to just 34,000 members as of October of last year.

The government has been accused by unionists of working to frustrate workers unions.

And now, those in the health sector are afraid.

Numerous industrial actions have rocked the sector over various grievances. The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic eventually forced health workers in some counties to go on strike for almost three months.

In what was largely seen as retaliation, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe in a circular dated December 22 advised against remitting dues to trade unions in the sector.

The letter was addressed to Public Service CS Margaret Kobia and the county governments.

"Arising from the consultative meeting held between the Ministry of Health and the Council of Governors on December 21, 2020, it was decided that with effect from the date of this letter, the ministry and county governments will not play the agency role of remitting union dues to the unions in the health sector," the circular reads.

The letter was copied to then-CoG chairman Wycliffe Oparanya and Health PS Susan Mochache.

Health unions read an ill motive on the side of the government. Already, the doctors union has threatened to take action.

It has accused the government of embarking on union-busting, saying the aim of the circular is to stifle their roles.

“We do not exist in a vacuum. We exist in the Constitution and we speak on behalf of workers of this country. So if you stifle unions you are basically stifling the voice of workers who run this country, be it in the health sector or teachers,” Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union secretary-general Chibanzi Mwachonda said.

 “We have seen Knut undergo that and now it has come to the health sector and it is a worrying trend because that looks like it is becoming a policy. So as unions in this country, we will not lie down and watch as this continues,” he added.

The doctors are consulting with all other public sector unions on ways to unlock the stalemate and counter the government plan.

Nurses have reiterated that the withholding of union dues will not stop their union from agitating for their rights.

The Kenya National Union of Nurses secretary-general Seth Panyako said nurses previously got extraneous allowances when they did not even have any union.

“They think that Panyako is getting salary from the union so if they kill the union I will go back to Kakamega. I can assure the mandarins led by Kagwe who think that they can kill the union and infringe and violate the rights of nurses in this country that they are being cheated because the law is very clear on union dues,” Panyako said.

“The nurses of this country are ready to go on strike without a union. After all the Constitution of Kenya Article 41 (2D) says every worker has the right to go on strike but it does not say every worker has a right to go on strike through a union.”

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions boss Francis Atwoli has hit out at CS Kagwe and even threatened to take the matter to court if he failed to withdraw the circular.

Atwoli said Kenya is a signatory to the International Labour Convention which allows free registration of trade unions and freedom of association.

Such a convention allows trade unions and employers to enter into collective bargaining agreements, Atwoli said.

The Cotu boss said the government cannot fail to implement the check-off system which was accepted and put into law in 1965 by the state. That was two years after independence. The system requires that every employer deducts and remits union dues within 14 days after the deductions.

Atwoli said neither Kagwe nor the Jubilee administration is exceptional. They cannot issue a circular to government departments advising against deduction of union dues. He said the deductions are money that members willingly contribute to their unions.

“They are not forced to contribute and that is not the money from the exchequer, it is not money from the government coffers, it is not money from the minister’s pocket, this is the money from workers,” Atwoli said.

"I am appealing to Kagwe to immediately withdraw his circular and allow union dues to reach where that money is intended to go and that is the respective trade unions. This is a worldwide accepted phenomenon that a worker whose money has been freely deducted has the cash remitted to his or her union.”

The doctors union on February 13 held a national delegates meeting in Nairobi to deliberate on the various matters affecting the health sector. The issue of government chocking the unions was among the top agenda.

The doctors are expected to announce their course of action in the coming weeks.