By Steve O. Akoth, Labour Awareness and Resource Centre
When reports appeared in the media two years ago detailing failure in mortgage repayments in the United States, the government of Kenya alongside many others in Africa, claimed that that was a US affair. The treasury bureaucrats and politicians were quick to reassure Kenyans that our economy was safe. In fact, new projections of 2% annual growth were given. But this was nothing more than the usual political talk show and regular political performance that is not uncommon in Kenya.
Our government, rather than deceive us, should appreciate that Kenyan workers know that they are part of a huge interconnected web. When a small scale farmer in Tigoni plants runner beans to sell to Homegrown for instance, she knows that the beans shall end up in the supermarket of Mars and Spencer in the United Kingdom. For that reason, the farmer is interested and is affected by the purchasing power of a consumer in the UK. Similarly, a worker on the stitching line in an Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Ruaraka, knows that the garment shall be sold off through Wal-Mart's shelves. The workers are therefore invested in the purchasing power of the average American who wants to buy a "cheap" designer garment from Wal-Mart. So the shrinking global market and the resulting economic nationalism in the northern countries in the name of bailout is an important subject for the worker in Kenya and trade unions engaged in Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) discussions in Kenya. In the long run, it is the working poor who experience the recession most, it does not matter whether it starts in China or the US.
The possible effects of the recession are not new to Kenyans. We have had several recessions in this country. In the 1990s, liberalization coupled with bad governance and corruption crippled agricultural and manufacturing sectors that had been in recession since 1986. As a result, Kenyans experienced reduced access to basic social services due to decreased government revenue allocations, rising levels of unemployment especially among women, development of precarious forms of livelihoods in the informal and formal sectors, de-industrialization, reduction of workers' earnings and loss of state revenues. And to bail out the investors, the government relaxed control and regulation. Most notable was the amendments in the Finance Act No. 4 of 1994. The Act amended section 16 of the then Employment Act and The Regulation of Wages and Conditions of Employment Act to circumvent the requirement of Union involvement in the redundancy of workers and related safeguards and procedures. This amendment introduced the concept of retrenchment. Thereafter, corporations have casualized labor and laid off workers at will. It is therefore the poorest who suffer most in the times of economic crisis like this. It is the poor and unskilled workers who are likely to lose their jobs.
In the above context and with the realization that what we are experiencing is a manifestation of corporate rot, the so called bailout that leaves workers to await for trickle down from corporations is yet another false promise. The 2009 national budget must therefore be about workers "bailout." It should do so by balancing the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow. Its aim should be to stimulate strong spending growth while keeping the increase of public debt to the minimum. The strong growth in spending should be seen through an increase in government allocation in social welfare, education, health, agriculture and regional development. Of course this goes hand in hand with the youth program Kazi Kwa Vijana which although is being done for political exigency has potential of benefiting our youths. These interventions would support longer term growth and development while providing an adequate safety net to the poor in shorter term. These efforts should go hand in hand with strengthening workers position to claim their legal and human rights. The budget should therefore reverse the Finance Act No. 4 of 1994 and put in place measures that shall protect workers from mischievous employers and investors who want to get profit at the expense of workers' rights. This is urgent more so that several companies have started using the flexibility provided by the redundancy clause to lay off workers in the last two months.
The workers' movements in Kenya have always argued that in the long run, Kenya should not market itself as a destination of cheap labor. Rather, it should market itself on the basis of responsible competitiveness. That is, as a place where workers' rights are upheld and a source of ethical products. This is the blue print for a workers' bailout. As this goes on, Labor Awareness and Resource Centre has opened discussions that aim at proposing an economic model for Kenya from workers' standpoint.
This article originally appear in LARC's newsletter, Fahari Kazini, which can be found online here.