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Opinion & Analysis

Public sector pay inequity a ticking time bomb

Doctors serving in public hospitals have been on strike for close to two months. Their grievances relate to a collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

Teachers are the ones who have gone on strike the most in the recent past. Currently, university lecturers have also downed their tools, while nurses have threatened to follow suit.

The cases of doctors and lecturers are in court so I won’t go into their merits. However, there are several broad issues that need explication.

A core aspect of the disputes relates to salaries paid to these public servants. Lecturers, for example, are complaining about the inequitable salary structure.

This is an election year. We all know friends who have declared interest in elective seats. They have listened to and heard the call from the electorate to serve them. Representation is a core hallmark of our democracy.

Consequently, the quality of those citizens we get to elect every five years impacts on the direction and speed of our development and hence the quality of our lives.

In this light, therefore, the interest in elective seats is commendable.

However, there are several professionals whose drive for seeking these seats is the perks that come with it, albeit clothed in the language of wanting to serve their people.

There is something completely wrong with a country’s payment structure that makes it more lucrative for one to be a politician as opposed to serving in the profession they trained in.

When one ignores the statement often bandied around about the appetite and opportunity for rent seeking by the political class and sticks to the stipulated remuneration, this inequity is still glaring.

No wonder several professionals from the groups currently under strike are intent on vying for elective office in the August General Election. There are numerous of them who aspire to be members of county assemblies.

When the Constitution was adopted, the desire was that the quality of county assembly members would be improved. This way, devolution would have support from professionals.

Secondly these people would be attracted to serving across the country to avoid a situation where most professionals were crowded in a few towns. While we may be achieving this desire, the manner and reasons for which we are doing it is a departure from the constitutional aspirations.

Public service is supposed to be about service and not personal aggrandisement. To ensure this happens, time is ripe for a rethink of our systems in Kenya.

The starting point has to be to balance between salary structure of the political class and the rest of the employees in Kenya. It cannot be that the most lucrative job in Kenya is politics.

While politics plays an important role in a country’s governance, an approach such as ours makes it appear as if it plays all the roles.

Secondly, the country must live within its means. This is the call by government whenever employees go on strike asking for increased pay. From personal experience, we all are aware of the dangers of living beyond your ability to sustain.

It can only result in pain, stress and negativity. It is important that the country lives within its means, not for a few sectors or a few cadres of employees but for all its actions.

Our primary school teaching imbued in us the knowledge that Kenya is a country of abundant resources. Such resources, however, must be put to optimal and balanced use to ensure progress.

Thirdly, it is time we paid much more attention to the quality of public services. A country where there is no efficient and functional public transport system, where there is huge appetite for everything private cannot sustain salary structures.

This is because everyone wants much more pay than their employment can deliver. The solution is not so much about salary increase as it is about improving quality of public transport.

Public transport will always be cheaper than private transport, public health likewise. But these must be available and efficient for them to be any meaningful choices.

Six years down the road, the Salaries and Remuneration Commission is yet to crack the salary nut. It is a ticking time bomb. The efforts it has made must deliver real fruits soon to avoid the current labour unrests.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

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