For many years, trade unions in the country were known as powerful advocates for workers’ rights and a significant political force. With a substantial membership base, nationwide structures, and the ability to mobilize members for social and political causes, trade unions often challenged the government.
Throughout history, trade unions produced influential leaders such as Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, Dennis Akumu, and Fred Kubai. These leaders, often characterized as firebrands, utilized strikes and industrial action to hold the government and employers accountable.
One of the most memorable moments in Kenya’s education sector was the five-week strike that occurred in the lead-up to October 2, 2015. Nearly 300,000 teachers went on strike to demand a pay raise, resulting in the government temporarily closing schools just as they were reopening for the critical third term.
Despite this strike being the largest in the country’s history, it was part of a pattern of work stoppages that had plagued Kenya’s labor force for decades. Another notable teacher strike occurred in 2002 during the General Election transition from former President Daniel arap Moi’s rule, impacting national exams.
In the health sector, doctors’ or nurses’ strikes often caused pain and anguish for Kenyans, leaving the sick without care and forcing the government to respond to their demands.
Traditionally, strikes were a hallmark of trade unions, effectively holding the country hostage when negotiations failed. Labor Day celebrations, held annually on May 1, were marked by thousands of Kenyans converging in Nairobi, where announcements of minimum wage increases were eagerly anticipated.
However, in 2023, the landscape has shifted significantly. Trade unions have lost their influence and support among workers. The 2023 Labor Day celebrations witnessed the lowest turnout in history, indicating waning confidence in the current unions.
Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs), once enforced through strikes if necessary, now face prolonged delays in implementation. For example, teachers have waited for eight years to see the full implementation of a CBA signed in 2016, which would have allocated an additional Sh54 billion in salaries.
The shift from two to four-year CBA periods, introduced by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), has left trade unions feeling powerless. They argue that economic realities change rapidly, and SRC’s involvement in CBA negotiations undermines their authority.
Francis Atwoli, the long-serving Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary-General, accuses the SRC of overstepping its mandate and becoming a major challenge to public service unions.
While SRC claims it aims for equal remuneration for work of equal value, trade unions argue that the commission’s decisions often favor the government’s financial constraints over workers’ rights.
The devolution of health, a consequence of the current Constitution, has further divided unions in the sector, as welfare issues are now managed at the county level.
Additionally, many employers, both public and private, are increasingly hiring workers on short-term contracts, making it less appealing for employees to join unions.
The government’s strategy of registering regime-friendly unions to weaken existing ones has also contributed to the decline of trade unions’ influence. For instance, the Kenya Union of Special Needs Education Teachers (Kusnet) was recognized as a third teachers’ trade union, further dividing representation.
Moreover, trade union leaders are increasingly pursuing political careers, aligning with specific political parties. This has allowed the government to favor unions associated with the ruling regime while penalizing those in opposition.
Technological advancements have also led to job cuts, particularly in industries like tea production, where automation has displaced a significant number of workers.
In this evolving landscape, trade unions are facing challenges that are reshaping their role in advocating for workers’ rights, with some suggesting that they have become more reasonable in their demands due to changing economic and labor market conditions.