On the sidelines of the International Labour Conference, PSI is hearing stories of unionists from across the world, fighting for their most basic workers’ rights
In 2013, the Kenyan Government embarked on a program of devolution, designed to decentralise power and transfer governance to the regional, county and municipal level. But these changes have led to huge difficulties for the public service unions.
Interview with Roba Duba, General Secretary of the Kenya County Government Workers Union
Can you give a brief overview of the changes that were implemented?
In 2013 we began a new system that devolved power to the grassroots via regional governments. It introduced very powerful new structures at the local level - similar to in federal states. In the past the County Government Workers Union that I worked for had a central negotiation machinery: state, municipalities, town councils - all levels of local authorities were negotiated together. Recruitment was simple, negotiation was simple, workers were automatically members.
What effect did this have on unions?
When devolution occured, we were sent into a spin - the resultant effect was that the unions lost the ability to function. We went from negotiating with one single employer to over 47 employers in the space of one day - and the new regional governments didn’t recognize unions in the same way. Many of the new local governments saw this as an opportunity to fire huge swathes of workers without due course.
Since 2013 we have been able to secure only 6 or 7 union recognition agreements out of 47 - even that was a huge battle. To get collective bargaining for civil servants has been impossible. We have made progress in some big cities such as Nairobi where we hope to have a Collective Bargaining Agreement shortly.
How has the union movement reacted to these changes?
One of the key issues with this new county system has been the creation of huge numbers of splinter unions - and a major fragmentation of the movement. Across sectors as well, there are now many different unions for doctors, nurses, county government, administrators, civil servants. The former strength in unity which we had is lost. The same rule based on a simple majority (more than 50% unionisable workers) persists, even though there can now be up to a dozen competing unions at any one workplace. THis has created a situation where we cannot progress at all because we come to an employer and they require a majority of employees to be recognize - which we simply cannot achieve.
How do you think devolution could be carried out without such adverse effects on the movement?
The government claimed that by devolving from a centralised level to a local level that they would somehow fix corruption - actually they have devolved corruption. While under the centralised system corruption is a clear problem, at least it is easier to monitor - civil society can keep an eye on the power. When it is so devolved and split between 47 counties this becomes impossible.
In my view - finances should not be so devolved. When we already have such an issue with corruption, financial devolution only fuels the fire. Corrupt local leaders are creating their own fiefdoms.
Also Human Resources, recruitment and hiring should not be devolved. By doing so you created a huge amount of duplication - for the work of both unions and administrations.
Devoled recruitment has exacerbated klan-based employment practices. Every new administration brings in their entire new team of public servants - there is no continuity, little institutional knowledge. There is very little control or oversight. Unions have to lobby their politicians and make links with NGO partners to lobby for these aspects to be maintained or brought back under central control.
The registration of unions also needs to be better controlled. This proliferation of splinter unions seems to be actively encouraged by employers to undermine the strength of union unity. We need the national registration office to crackdown on this. The splinter unions which already exist need to be brought into the fold. PSI can help show the benefits of uniting - we need professional support in this campaign, to educate and show how we can tackle this challenge.
Aside from devolution, what big challenges are workers facing?
Medical facilities are hugely underfunded. They keep talking about Universal healthcare - but so far it is not happening and huge numbers of employees are without their required healthcare. There is also a lot of abuse of public workers by bosses, a lot of intimidation. There is a lot of sex for promotions. Recently a public worker was whipped. There is even more abuse in the public sector than the private sector and the lack of job security only makes the issue worse.