Columnists

Tackle employment policy challenges

JOBS

Jobseekers in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya, there was a lot of trepidation on what to expect. Projections based on international trends expected high fatality and casualty rates. Partly because of the measures that the government put in place, the figures have not been as high as originally anticipated.

However, the proverbial curve continues to rise and not flatten to give opportunity for the country to reopen and pick up the pieces from the effects of the disease.

When the initial measures were taken, focus was on saving lives. However, as the President has since reiterated in his periodic addresses to the nation, livelihoods too have been negatively impacted by the disease and containment measures taken in response. One critical area is employment.

Employment relationships are based on a contract between the employee and the employer, which sets out the terms and conditions of engagement. The Employment Act provides legal framework for this relationship, guaranteeing that it will be based on mutual agreement and objectivity.

The law lays down circumstances under which the relationship may end. But numerous disputes arise every day. To ensure that when parties cannot resolve such disputes amicably amongst themselves, they have a dispute resolution forum, in 2010 the former Industrial Court was converted to the Employment and Labour Relations Court when the country adopted a new Constitution.

Despite these elaborate provisions, nothing could have prepared the country for the disruption to the employment relationships by the pandemic and the required response measures. Government facilities downscaled their operations and so did private businesses.

Government efforts to address the challenges to the employment relationship have, however, not fundamentally eased the burden on several sectors of society. The challenge is not just in Kenya, to be fair.

Kenya initially lowered the taxation rates to give relief to citizens during the period of Covid-19 pandemic and then maned some adjustments to the laws. The Senate too has been grappling with a law on the pandemic, which includes provisions on protection of the employment relationships during the period. Despite this, there are frequent reports of layoffs and other sufferings by employees.

One group that has not received as much attention as is necessary are teachers in private schools. While there have been measures to deal with the hospitality industry and thus cushion employees from massive job losses, there has been no mention about the plight of this other category of employees in the country.

Due to past policy failures, public schools suffered from several years of neglect and under-investment. Consequently, private schools mushroomed all over the country, becoming a central part of the country's education system.

The current crisis demonstrates the danger of privatising basic public goods, with education being one of them. This is a policy issue that requires urgent and comprehensive intervention.

However, responses to the pandemic have required the government to address all facets of the economy. In the education sector, though there has been sole focus on public schools.

Many of the private schools, especially the smaller ones, rely solely on termly payment of fees from parents to ensure that expenses are met, including salaries for staff. The closure of schools was initially a temporary setback. However, its persistence into the start of the second term of schools threw many of their hopes into disarray. Many of the staff in these institutions have either been sent on unpaid leave or are in a state of limbo without any clear communication.

The lesson for businesses is to have savings for a rainy day. To plan on the basis that schools will always operate, while traditionally accurate has now been shuttered. Every business must consider what is called acts of God, which issues beyond human control. But these are future lessons. For now, the government should factor in this sector and its employees in its planning.