2 May 2017

East Africa: On May Day, Sub-Saharan Workers Still Struggle

Photo: PSCU
President Uhuru Kenyatta

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke at the annual May Day celebrations Monday in Nairobi, a day when many countries celebrate workers. But in sub-Saharan Africa, about three-fourths of those laborers work in the informal sector, without contracts or job protections, according to the International Labor Organization.

Kenyatta pledged to tackle high unemployment during his May Day speech.

One hundred meters away, 31-year-old Christine Ndunge continued her work selling sodas and snacks. She has been a street vendor at a public park in central Nairobi for several years.

"These days getting a job is hard," she said. "I have decided to employ myself so that I can survive. Like now, it's a rainy season — there are not enough customers to buy drinks. I motivate myself to continue selling because there is nowhere else I can work."

In his address Monday, Kenyatta announced that Kenya will be raising its minimum wage by 18 percent.

The crowd cheered, but analysts say policies like raising the minimum wage won't help a majority of the workforce.

According to the Kenyan government's 2017 economic survey, 833,000 jobs were created last year. However, less than 20 percent of those jobs were in the formal sector.

"There is that disconnect," said Kwame Owino, CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya. "So on one side, we have unions, which are talking for people who are in the formal sector, raising wages. And when that happens in standard economics, one of the first things that happens is employment shrinks. So when that employment shrinks in the formal sector, most of these people fall back to the informal sector. We are solving the wrong problem."

He said Kenya and other African countries need to improve conditions for entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs in Africa often struggle to raise capital. Owino said what governments can do is create new regulations making it easier for small businesses to get loans. He said policymakers can also streamline the process of registering and running a legal business and make it cheaper.

Josphat Mwendo, a trained mechanic, spent years unsuccessfully looking for a job. Finally, the 32-year-old started fixing cars for money himself. Now, he has three people he pays to help him.

"I don't feel good because they did not speak about people like us," he said. "I think it's good to think about those who have employed themselves too, so that they can know their worth and also feel they are Kenyans like the rest."

The problem is particularly acute among young people.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are just a third of the continent's total working-age population, but account for nearly two-thirds of the continent's unemployed.

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