Second Labour Day in lockdown looms with job losses mounting

The pandemic has turned breadwinners into house warmers

In Summary

• This year's edition comes amid partial lockdown, Covid-19 spike and high cost of living

• To survive, families are skipping meals and moving upcountry or to lower-rent homes

Job seeker Joshua Munyao joins other Kenyans at Uhuru Park grounds for the Labour Day celebrations on May 1, 2018
Job seeker Joshua Munyao joins other Kenyans at Uhuru Park grounds for the Labour Day celebrations on May 1, 2018

It is 8am in the sprawling Mathare slums at the heart of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Willis Ojango, a former employee of a cement manufacturing firm, is known for his comic antics during Labour Day celebrations in Nairobi the past decade.

Today, it is the last thing on his mind even though it is coming up on Saturday. He is assisting his wife to set up a vegetable kiosk, ready for the day’s trading.

This is the family’s primary source of income since April 21 last year, when Ojango and tens of his colleagues were retrenched after the production and supply chain was disrupted by Covid-19.

“I cried rivers. The job was part of me for 20 years. I didn’t know what to tell my family. I burnt my Labour Day costume made of cement bags to mark the end of an era,” Ojango said, fighting back tears threatening to roll down his dark, weary cheeks.

Just like many other workers across the world, Ojango spent last year’s Labour Day in solitude, coming to terms with the new virus, which had been reported for the first time in Kenya mid-March.

It is going to be even worse this year, considering the ongoing partial lockdown in the country, high Covid-19 transmission rate and high cost of living.

“Most people have lost jobs to this pandemic. Majority of those working were forced to take pay cuts, while others have sadly died. It will be a dull day, just like last year,” Ojango said.

Most people have lost jobs to this pandemic. Majority of those working were forced to take pay cuts, while others have sadly died. It will be a dull day, just like last year
Willis Ojango


Traditionally in Kenya, Labour Day has always been celebrated with pomp and colour, tough talks by labour union officials advocating workers’ rights, with a minimum wage increase announcement by government representatives being the icing on the cake.

It was rare for the country’s second President, the late Daniel Arap Moi, to miss the national celebration for the day. His successors Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta have also attended such functions, promising goodies to workers.

Just like last year, there will be no gathering, no song and dance as the country and the world mark workers’ day.

Sadly, many are staring at job losses or salary cuts as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic cripples the economy and wrecks souls.  

At least 604 firms in Kenya sent workers home due to the coronavirus fallout last year, according to the Federation of Kenya Employers.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimated that around two million people have been made redundant due to the outbreak, a figure FKE is terming conservative.

According to the state statistician, the number of the employed shrunk to 15.9 million Kenyans from a higher 17.8 million Kenyans in March in the quarter ended September last year, with the country’s unemployment rate doubling to10.4 per cent from 5.2 per. The employment-to-population ratio dropped to 57.7 per cent from 64.4 per cent.

During Labour Day celebrations, President Uhuru Kenyatta had projected that more than half a million Kenyans could lose their jobs by the end of last year, saying workers in the informal sector and casual labourers were the worst-hit.

“The reality is far worse than this,” FKE executive director Jacqueline Mugo told a news conference late last year.


The KNBS defines the unemployed as persons who did not have a job in the reference period but actively looked for work and were available for placement.

The highest proportion of the unemployed has remained between ages 20 and 24 and 25 and 29 with respective unemployment rates of 22.8 and 21.7 per cent.

The pandemic has taken a toll on several sectors of the economy, with hospitality, aviation, education, transport and logistics worst hit.

Last year, the government did not announce a minimum wage increase for workers, and a similar scenario is expected this year. Kenya’s minimum wage was retained at Sh15,572.

This despite the cost of living going up as traders take advantage of low supply, high demand, a situation brought about by the government’s strict Covid-19 observation measures.

The spiral effect has hit households hard as breadwinners become house warmers.

A survey by Twaweza East Africa found that six in 10 Kenyans cannot afford three square meal a day as a result of the crushing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The survey was released in February and covered 3,000 respondents aged 18 and older. 

It indicates food reserves in six of 10 homes could barely last a week, and two out of 10 homes have no food at all, warning that the pain will worsen on reintroduced Covid-19 restrictions.

The report said two out of three Kenyans, 67 per cent, believe the education sector was worst hit by the pandemic, followed by the informal/jua kali sector and the health sector at 60 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively.

The findings mirror a more recent report by the Consortium of Research on Governance, which found that more than half of families in Kenya cannot afford basic needs due to the impact of Covid-19.

The report, titled 'Economic impact of Covid-19 Mitigation Measures on Mwananchi', was released on Wednesday. It shows 74 per cent of households in the country are struggling to put food on the table.

The few who can afford food, clothes and shelter are forced to adopt new coping mechanisms to boost their consumption revenue or cut expenditure. 

It adds that 21 per cent of breadwinners have been forced to look for side hustles to cope with the socioeconomic pressures of Covid-19, while 17.8 per cent of families are borrowing to put food on the table. 

“Most families have been forced to relocate to less costly houses, while 5.7 per cent of city dwellers have retreated to their native counties,” the report reads in part.


The latest Covid-19 measures introduced by President Uhuru Kenyatta worsened the situation in Nairobi, Kiambu, Machakos, Kajiado and Nakuru, forcing almost 60 per cent of families to skip meals as a survival tactic. 

Paul Ratemo, an economist and regular commentator on social happenings in the country is afraid that more people are likely to lose jobs due to the new measures, fuelling an extended socioeconomic crisis.

“Lack of livelihood is the mother of all socioeconomic crises we are currently witnessing. Spouses killing each other, suicides and divorces on the rise, prostitution and other illegalities are top news on new age and traditional media,” Ratemo told the Star.

He adds that while Covid-19 is a health crisis that should be well handled, the fresh, strict measures by the government are doing too little to help the situation.

“You cannot restrict a hungry population. President Uhuru Kenyatta should quickly reopen the country lest the current socioeconomic crisis worsens. I think Labour Day should be changed to Idle Day,” Ratemo said.

Even so, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions is keen to mark the day with renewed calls to employers to accommodate and fairly treat employees despite the health crisis.

This year, Cotu will be championing the inclusion of digital taxi operators and mobile money agents into the wage bracket.  

The union’s secretary general Francis Atwoli wants the two groups recognised and accorded similar treatment with those in the minimum wage bracket.

“Kenyan digital taxi drivers should be recognised as workers and accorded a minimum wage as is the case in Britain. The same should apply to our M-Pesa and Airtel money agent. Parliament should also legislate relevant laws on the same,” Atwoli said in a tweet.  

All in all, with the high unemployment rate, tough living conditions and muted economic growth, this year’s Labour Day will go in history as hopeless and dull.

Edited by T Jalio

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