4 May 2007

Kenya: Huge Outcry Over Pathetic State of the Labour Office

Nairobi — The Government has been put on spot over its manner of handling of labour issues, with revelations that the Labour Department is unable to efficiently perform its tasks because it lacks enough funds and staff.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) has released a new report in which it concludes that the Government does not take issues of workers seriously and plays down the role of labour in national development.

And according to Commissioner of Labour Mr Johnstone Kavuludi, funds allocated to the Department of Labour do not have any meaningful impact on. He reveals that the department's budget proposals are slashed excessively every year, making it difficult for Labour officers to perform their work.

Inadequate staffing has on the other hand seen one District Labour Officer managing as many as three districts without a vehicle or any staff. "With a current Inspectorate of 18 personnel, it will take 29 years to visit each premise once a year," Mr Kavuludi said. The best number should be 44, if the Department is to effectively carry out its functions, he says.

KNCHR says in the new report that while countries like South Africa have placed the Labour portfolio in the Office of the President as a sign of the central role that labour matters play in development, in Kenya, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development is ranked far lower the hierarchy of ministries.

The Commission says it is clear that the Ministry carries little importance for its holders- whether at the political or technical level. Inadequate staffing has seen one District Labour Officer managing as many as three districts without a vehicle or any staff.

"More tellingly is the fact that the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development is so grossly under-resourced that for nearly one decade now, it has not been able to replace personnel core to its effective running," says Commissioner Lawrence Mute, at the launch of the report.

The report-Nguzo za Haki (Pillars of Justice) launched yesterday, urges the Government play a clear roles as a regulator and standard setter and as the impartial judge of conflict between employers and employees.

"The government does not need to think too hard to determine the types of policies to best benefit its citizens since interventions it could take are fairly basic," says Mr Mute. "The bottom line is that the government must stop taking for granted the very flagship institutions without which the wheel of the state will surely stop sooner than later," he warns.

The Commission calls on the government to allocate the resources which the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development requires to provide effective services to Kenyans.

It asks it to ensure that the 2007/2008 budget corrects the imbalance which makes labour related matters top on the list of complaints it receives, and asks stakeholders and the civil society to mount the necessary campaign for this to happen.

Mr Kavuludi says the profile of the department should be raised to reflect its broad mandate, for it to be able to address the abuse of labour rights effectively. "This department is one of the most poorly facilitated in government, the enormous responsibilities of the Ministry of Labour is seldom reflected in budget allocations, this has greatly hampered the timely and effective delivery of services," the Commissioner of Labour notes.

The Ministry lacks enough staff and many were leaving for greener pastures because of poor conditions of service as contained in an unattractive scheme of service, he says.

Although the government has developed legislation and regulations intended to control and conduct relations, the laws, according to KNCHR, are poorly designed and easy to manipulate to ensure cheap and abundant labour. However, it is quick to note that even with the loopholes however, the law would still introduce some fundamental changes.

There has been systematic violation of labour rights in Kenya according to the commission. Labour rights continue to be single largest source of complaints reported to it.

Complaints include abuse of rights of casual workers, non-payment or delay in the payment of wages, unfair dismissal, lack of adequate or accessible redress mechanisms, suppression or trade unionism and complaints in regard to occupational health and safety including compensation for work related illness.

By September 30, last year, it had received 1,177 labour-related complaints, representing 29 per cent of the total 4008 complaints it has received since its inception on July 29, 2003. A majority of the complaints came from Nairobi province, followed by Wajir and then Rift Valley and Central provinces.

These statistics are however just a tip of the ice-berg, according to Mr Michael Okelloh, the assistant Legal Counsel, Complaints and Redress Department of the Commission.

"Additional statistics from the Labour department, trade unions or other complaints handling public bodies and civil society organisations definitely confirm the high numbers of labour complaints in the country," he says.

He explains that many aggrieved workers do not come forward to report violations of their labour complaints , maybe because they have lost faith in the existing mechanisms for redressing labour grievances. Workers who lose their jobs face serious difficulties when seeking redress, with some employers unreasonably delaying their pay, if at all their terminal dues. High poverty levels mean that few workers can afford the high litigation costs.

"High levels of employment have possibly pushed many workers to reluctantly co-exist with violations of their labour rights, lest they lose their livelihood," the report says, adding that some employers, even co-workers, view workers who fight for their rights as ungrateful, since they (workers) at least have a source of income.

"The high number of labour-related complaints that KNCHR receives may be a pointer of a systematic human rights violation, perhaps because the administrative and legal framework governing labour matters in the country is weak," Mr Okelloh says.

KNCHR expresses concern that the Labour Department does not satisfy a high number of complaints, leading to a spill over to the commission. Though the department has a more immediate statutory mandate over labour matters, it faces among others, capacity related problems, it says.

"For in stance, some district labour officers singly oversee more than one administrative district, usually without a motor vehicle at their disposal. Lack of internal democracy in trade unions on the other hand makes them ineffective to provide first-level safeguard to unionisable workers," the report states.

The judiciary, as a key institution in the protection of labour rights on the other hand, continues to be inaccessible to poor labour complainants due to high litigating costs, long delays in hearing and to some extent, corruption, the Commission notes.

Mr Okelloh blames Kenya's weak labour law framework, noting that it is, perhaps, the genesis of the systematic labour rights violation in the country, since labour rights are still governed by six different out-dated statutes.

KNCHR calls for the strengthening of the Industrial Court to make it an effective arbiter of complaints between employers and employees. "Rule of law dictates that all parties-be they government, trade unions or employers must obey court orders to the letter," it says.

The commission also lashes out a COTU, saying it spends far too much of its time crying wolf against human rights workers instead of hankering down to the hard work of providing and improving their actual protection.

"Our take on this is that fighting over turf when the terrain is devoid of grass is not particularly enamouring thing for nay self-respecting institution to participate in. The future entails a broadening of stakeholders who together shall deploy human rights language to bring capital and the state to account when they violate the rights of employees or the society generally," says Commissioner Mute.

It was amazing, he notes, that the labour movement has not been more articulate and vigorous in questioning the casual way in which the Government treats labour issues.

Recommendations are that the government should boost the ability of the Labour Ministry to deliver on labour rights and implement the Justice (Rtd) Cockar recommendations on revised labour laws, noting the further proposals that stakeholders have made.

Human rights organisations, the Labour Ministry, employers and trade unions should also work together to address labour rights. "They should view each other as partners and not as competitors," the Commission urges.

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