Economy & Politics

Civil servants give New Year strike notice over pay freeze

Union of Kenya Civil Servants secretary-general Tom Odege (second left) leads other union officials in singing a song during a past Press conference in Nairobi. FILE
Union of Kenya Civil Servants secretary-general Tom Odege (second left) leads other union officials in singing a song during a past Press conference in Nairobi. FILE 

A union representing civil servants has threatened to paralyse public services from next month if the government does not rescind the freeze on appointments and salaries that started two weeks ago.
The Union of Kenya Civil Servants (UKCS) says it will call a nationwide strike if the measures the Cabinet passed in the hope of containing the wage bill are not reversed.
“If they (government) fail to meet our demands for a reversal of the freeze by the end of this month, we shall call a strike since all the diplomatic boardroom discussions we have had seem not to have borne any fruit,” UKCS secretary- general Tom Odege said.
He described as “irrational” and “defeatist” the reasons advanced for the freeze, saying counties were recruiting massively only for workers in the central government to bear the consequences.

The Cabinet on November 22 endorsed a freeze on new hires, salaries and allowance reviews in a bid to slow down the growth of the wage bill, which now stands at Sh458 billion.

The public sector payroll now accounts for almost half of Kenya’s revenues, which are expected to hit Sh1 trillion this year.

President Kenyatta has persistently described as unsustainable the recurrent expenditure as the government struggles to finance capital-intensive projects that were part of the campaign pledges. These include the free maternity care, free laptops for Standard One pupils and billions of shillings necessary to complete key infrastructure projects.

However, UKCS said “underpaid” civil servants were not to blame for the wage bill spiralling out of control and, therefore, should not be punished through freezing of salaries.

Instead, the union said the government should address disproportionate pay within the public service where a few civil servants – including those serving in commissions – earn substantially higher than junior staff.

He added that the freeze was coming at a time when government is greatly understaffed.

“Civil service employment data, for example, shows that there are 172,465 vacant posts and 218,394 in-post, meaning that the civil service is understaffed to the extent of 41.12 per cent,” alleged Mr Odege.

Serious

“The understaffing is more serious in service ministries such as labour, livestock, agriculture and health, which are operating with a staff capacity of less than half of the authorised establishment,” the union said in a notice published on Tuesday.

The union further alleges that only 30 per cent of the civil servants are youth, meaning an employment freeze could lead to the older generation – who are the majority - retiring without instituting proper succession structures.

The government’s latest decree, the union added, was also coming in the wake of teachers, police officers and university lecturers getting substantial pay hikes.

Last week, for instance, Members of the County Assembly (MCAs) earned a sweetheart deal that will see their pay increase by Sh2.64 billion.

They also got higher mileage allowances as well as newly-formed mortgage and car schemes in a wage review announced by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC).

This caused the overall wage bill of the 2,000 officials rise by 45.8 per cent to Sh8.43 billion from the current Sh5.78 billion. The MCAs had been on strike since August agitating for the pay review.

“Why should the salary increment freeze target only the civil servants, when these employees are earning peanuts with negative effects on their welfare and productivity?,” Mr Odege asked.

Several attempts to get a response from the Public Service Commission were not successful.

This is not the first time that the union is threatening to go on strike to seek better pay, higher allowances and improved working conditions. In July, it issued a three-week strike notice but backed down after assurances from the government that the grievances would addressed. Mr Odege said the pledge was yet to be honoured.

In this year’s Budget review outlook, Treasury Secretary Henry Rotich singled out the pension and wage bills as two recurrent expenditures that needed to be addressed urgently.

He noted that the public expenditures posed a challenge to the government meeting the country’s development goals.

“Public expenditure pressures, especially recurrent expenditures, pose a fiscal risk,” said Mr Rotich.

“Wage pressures and implementation of the new Constitution and the devolved government may limit continued funding for development expenditure.”

He said a salary review by SRC was one of the ways through which the high expenses in government would eventually fall to manageable levels, saying it will “improve on planning of salaries and wages reviews because it will be predictable...”

However, economists say the freezing of wages was an indictment on SRC.

“The SRC should have used its powers as set in the Constitution to set an overall wage for State officers and not break down salaries and allowances,” said Kwame Owino, the CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

“The commission agreed to negotiate with dissenting elected leaders once they released their wage structures and now everybody covets whatever the other got. The SRC to me has failed in its duty.”

Kenya’s wage bill is about 12 per cent of GDP, but is expected to come down slightly in the next financial year. The international average is at seven per cent.

President Kenyatta has directed that a report on parastatals reforms he received last month be implemented, heralding more job losses.