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Trade Unions Must Not Be Constrained

Editorial, The Nation (Nairobi), 4 November 2000

Nairobi - It would be tragic if Kenya's exports were to be boycotted because of the government's cosy links with the trade union movement.

The country is yet to make it to the list of countries that are supposed to benefit from the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act for this reason, as well as for condoning poor labour practices.

Previously, there have been threats by the International Labour Organisation to blacklist the country for failing to recognise conventions of workers' rights. Once before, in 1993, State interference in trade union affairs forced the International Confederation of Trade Unions to shift a pan-African workshop to be held in the country to Uganda. It would be foolhardy to tempt the international community a second time.

Throughout the difficult period of the government's liaison with labour, actions that clearly infringe on workers' rights have been sustained. Most disturbing among these is the banning of the Civil Servants Union and the subsequent reluctance to re-register it. The absence of a civil servants union has greatly tainted the ongoing retrenchment programme - with unproven allegations of unfairness and victimisation.

Thankfully, the Labour Ministry, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Kenya Employers have already forwarded to the government a request to allow the union's revival. It is a commendable effort that should, hopefully, receive better treatment than previous pronouncements on the subject.

As the matter of the Civil Servants Union is considered, the refusal to register certain trade unions should also be reconsidered.

The time has come for the government to loosen the suffocating vice-grip in which it holds the labour movement. The government's preoccupation with controlling the trade union movement has greatly undermined its effectiveness in promoting the welfare of wage earners and advancing their opportunities for employment by helping people find jobs and developing apprenticeship standards for the training of skilled workers.

It is appalling that the government should wait to be threatened with exclusion from trade agreements for it to begin considering freeing the labour movement. Trade unions can only operate effectively if they are free of government influence and control.

The government should remove itself from trade union affairs not just because that is what powerful international interests dictate, but because it is the right thing to do.

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