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Cabinet Hears Plea for Union

By Owino Opondo, The Nation (Nairobi), 3 November 2000

Nairobi - The civil servants' union could be revived by June, if the Cabinet agrees. Registering the union was among major conditions given to the Government by the International Labour Organisation, the Nation has learnt.

It threatened to blacklist Kenya if conventions on worker rights are not ratified, leading to an international boycott of Kenyan exports by trade unionists.

As a result, the Ministry of Labour and other organisations dealing with worker rights forwarded the civil servants' request to the Government.

The Federation of Kenya Employers and the Central Organisation of Trade Unions also helped to draft the recommendation, sent to the Cabinet three weeks ago.

The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Dr Kang'ethe Gitu, yesterday confirmed his ministry had sent the recommendation to the Cabinet, and he also confirmed that reinstatement of the union was discussed during the ILO meeting in June, but ruled out pressure on his ministry to act on the matter.

The civil service retrenchment is believed to be a major reason why the Government is dragging its feet on the matter.

It was effected without consultations and led to widespread criticism of the Sh40,000 job-loss package and conditions imposed on the retrenchees, particularly the undertaking they had to give never to work in the civil service again.

The retrenchees, including some as young as 25, say the condition is inhumane and prevents them ever again working for Kenya's biggest employer.

The Union of Kenya Civil Servants was registered in August, 1956 but banned in July, 1980. President Moi lifted the ban in 1992, but the directive was never implemented.

Cancelling the ban, the President said Government workers should have a forum through which to air their grievances and fight for their rights.

The President later appointed a committee, chaired by Industrial Court Judge S.R. Cockar to investigate and recommend ways of reinstating the union.

In 1994, the then Head of Public Service, Prof Philip Mbithi, announced the Government's acceptance of the Cockar Report, which recommended that the union be revived immediately.

Parliament also passed two recommendations to revive the union, in 1993 and in 1997.

It is understood that a number of international labour organisations have been worried by what they see as Kenya's poor record in observing worker rights.

Child and forced labour, state interference in private business and the lack of a civil servants' union were some examples cited by the ILO and the World Trade Organisation.

Those, and what were seen to be the overbearing powers exercised by chiefs, were among issues that confronted the delegation from Nairobi in June when they visited ILO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kenya wants to speed up restructuring its labour force to benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which helps selected African countries to access the US market.

The Government is among 34 African countries whose exports will benefit from duty-free entry into the US under a law signed by President Clinton in May.

The criteria include a country's progress in establishing a "market-based economy that minimises government interference" in price controls, subsidies and state ownership.

The ILO is an agency of the United Nations that promotes the welfare of workers. It was established in 1919 as part of the League of Nations, forerunner of the UN and has about 150 countries as its members.

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