HALF-A-LOAF ECONOMY

Labour Day in the eyes of haves and have-nots

As Kenya joins the world in marking Labour Day, its impact on living standards of most workers remains questionable

In Summary

• Workers who seek help from Labour offices to receive their rightful dues from employers are sometimes frustrated.

• One of the highest minimum wage increments was announced in 2017. Uhuru announced an 18 per cent increase.

Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli and Labour CS Ukur Yattani during 2018 Labour Day celebrations
Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli and Labour CS Ukur Yattani during 2018 Labour Day celebrations
Image: JACK OWUOR

It's a hot Wednesday morning and Vokede is seated on the pavement outside an apartment block in Kilimani, hoping to catch the eye of a potential client out of a group of eight women.

To Vokede, Labour Day does not mean much. It is just another day to try and make Sh500.

Vokede is a house help who troops to Kilimani every day, hoping to be picked from the pavement (or ‘house helps’ corner’, as it has been christened) to do domestic chores.

Vokede lives in a Sh3,000 mabati house in Kawangware. She has been struggling to make ends meet ever since she lost her full-time job in February, when her former employer relocated to the US.

TRADE UNIONS NOT HELPING

There is also a problem of ineffective trade unions. “Some trade union officials are more interested in what subscriptions they receive than the welfare of the employees, whom they purport to represent. This may be due to corruption, where the employers pay off the trade union officials so they do not enforce the minimum wage.

Vokede used to earn Sh8,000. Now she depends on M-Shwari loans to make ends meet. She is charged Sh525 for the Sh7,000 she borrows monthly, and although she has the chance to get back Sh105 (the 20 per cent interest refund made when the loan is repaid early), she usually struggles to meet the repayment date.

Peris, a fashion designer, has a different story. She spends an average of Sh7,000 per month on fuel, Sh1,000 shy of Vokede's former salary.

For her, Labour Day is a pain because she usually has to raise her workers’ (house help and tailors) salary.

"There are so many expenses everywhere you turn in Kenya. If (President) Uhuru raises the minimum wage this year, I’ll have to look for an extra Sh1,000-2,000 to pay my house help and tailors. I have three tailors plus my house help, so we’re talking of about Sh8,000 extra per month."

"It makes me ask myself: 'Do I really need my house help to come to work every day? I can just have her in three times a week, and that will reduce costs. I’m also wondering if I can get two tailors to do the work and fire one."

PUSHED TO THE BRINK

 

During Labour Day celebrations last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a five per cent increment on the minimum wage, bringing the salary for house helps and other workers in that general category working in Nairobi to Sh13,573. The daily rate is Sh622.

Vokede says she knows she is underpaid, but, “half a loaf is better than none”.  

She says whether the President announces an increment or not does not matter to her because her focus is just getting by on what clients are willing to pay her.

Stephen Amadalo, the managing partner at HR consultancy Baseline RP, says the purpose of Labour Day is two-fold. For employees, it is a day when the minimum wage is adjusted by the government. For employers, it is a time to lobby for a more favourable business environment.

Organisations argue that with a better business environment, they would perform better and in turn be able to improve on the terms of employees. While this might be true, not all employers translate into a better business environment to benefit the employees. That’s why in the last 10 years, we have seen increased industrial action
Stephen Amadalo, managing partner at HR consultancy Baseline RP

Amadalo says the ideal situation for Labour Day is one in which employers, employees and the government evaluate the working relationship to reduce or eliminate industrial action and continue to build the economy.

“By evaluating, we will be able to know the gains and gaps, build on the gains and fill the gaps so we can move the country forward,” he said.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

While employees in unionised jobs usually benefit from increments announced by the President, the situation is touch-and-go for non-unionised workers, including house helps. Many casual workers will accept any amount of money and have little negotiating power due to desperation.

However, Amadalo says employers who fail to pay the stipulated wages put themselves in a dangerous position.

He says, “When the law catches up with them, they will pay all the money owed in lump sum, and it is normally hefty.”

He said workers who seek help from Labour offices in the counties are sometimes frustrated. “There are few labour inspectors compared to the number of employers. There is also a lucklustre performance from some. They do not carry out the inspection as mandated by legislation.”

Veronica Mutua, the HR coordinator at the Fred Hallows Foundation, concurs. She says, “Some offices have secretaries who just stamp documents brought to them, without looking at the contents. Some do not get to work until past 9am, and are out by 3pm.”

Amadalo says corruption is a problem, with some labour inspectors colluding with employers.

HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT

The Federation of Kenya Employers has year after year opposed minimum wage increments, saying it is expensive and the strain put on organisations can have a negative effect of pushing firms to sack workers to remain profitable.

FKE chairperson Jacqueline Mugo has previously said there is no clear policy used to set and adjust minimum wages.

One of the highest minimum wage increments was announced in 2017. Uhuru announced an 18 per cent increment in the run-up to the General Election.

Amadalo said despite attempts by the government to improve Kenyans’ lives by raising the minimum wage during most years, the state of employment in the country is depressed.

According to the World Bank, Kenya has the highest rate of youth unemployment in East Africa.

In 2017, Uhuru pledged to create more than one million jobs. There are concerns this target has not been met.

As Kenya joins the world in marking Labour Day, the question remains: Does it have a significant impact on improving the living standards of most workers, or is it just another ordinary day that only benefits some?