Teachers burn effigies outside the Nakuru Knut offices during the recent strike. Workers’ unions have lately staged strikes to agitate for pay increments. FOTOSEARCH

Teachers burn effigies outside the Nakuru Knut offices during the recent strike. Workers’ unions have lately staged strikes to agitate for pay increments. FOTOSEARCH

When World War II broke out, the war ministry in London dispatched a coded message to one of the British outposts in an inaccessible area in Africa reading: “War declared, arrest all enemy aliens in your district.”

The war ministry received this prompt reply: “Have arrested ten Germans, six Belgians, four Frenchmen, two Italians, three Austrians and an American, please advice immediately who we are at war with.”

Labour unions have organised strikes in most parts of Kenya in recent months, demanding a higher minimum wage for workers.

As we saw from the teachers’ union, workers and unionisable staff are in a declared war. But unless we are clear about who the enemy is, we will waste our time fighting enemies who aren’t enemies at all.

For more than a quarter century, the labour movement in Kenya has made significant strides for workers. The transition from colonial rule to independence saw the installation of important labour laws.

A comprehensive minimum wage law mandates wage increases. Strikes are legal. Dismissals can and are regularly appealed by unions at the Industrial Court.

In recent years, however, these rights have been gradually eroded because of an ever increasing population and a slow-growing economy where job creation has not kept pace with demand.

Kenya is among the six countries in Africa where industrial courts still sit daily to hear and settle disputes arising from wrongful dismissal, claims for wage increases and other labour disputes.

Unfortunately, wages in Kenya are not determined by the operation of the market. They are not the result of demand-supply interaction in the traditional economic sense but are often the consequence of disputes between labour unions and employers, with a small mediation role played by the Industrial Court.

Wage increases of more than 10 per cent will likely stoke inflation, with lost work days hitting company profits and tax revenues, compounding budget and current-account headaches.

Yet with high joblessness and social unrest escalating, poor Kenyans are unlikely to let up in their demands for better living standards.

On the other hand, if workers are poorly paid, their purchasing power will remain low and they will not be able to afford manufactured goods. This will keep manufacturers from expanding and new jobs will remain an unfulfilled goal.

Stability

Any wage increases must be based on technical analysis and not what’s in the interest of the unions. And this is the reason why we must act like a marriage and not a boxing match.

Millions of people still compete for the privilege of turning up day after day to surrender body and soul in exchange for a wage.

A job, boring or arduous as it might be, is the easier way out. Just ask any entrepreneur.

But just like in any marriage, pressures lie ahead. Either the government has to go and borrow funds or it has to tax people. There are both immediate growth consequences and the longer-term price stability effects that need to be thought through.

The conflict between workers on how the wages should be determined must balance both the interests of workers and the motives of employers and this will be pegged on interaction and communication between unions and employers.

Mr Waswa is the managing director of Outdoors Africa. Email: waswa@outdoorsafrica.co.ke