Kenya taps Sh1.3bn US fund for workers’ rights ahead of new trade deal


Textile workers at Altex EPZ Textile Manufacturing in Athi River. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya is set to benefit from a Sh1.29 billion US government fund meant to improve compliance with international labour standards in key export sectors ahead of a new trade deal with Washington.

The US Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) said Kenya is among three African countries picked for the grant alongside the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and one other unnamed nation.

“Made available through the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), the grant of $11.7 million (Sh1.29 billion) will support efforts to improve compliance with relevant international labour standards and acceptable conditions of work, with an emphasis on promoting occupational safety and health in one or more export-oriented economic sectors, such as the mining and quarrying sector,” the Department said in an update.

“ILAB’s mission is to promote a fair global playing field for workers and businesses in the United States and around the world by enforcing trade commitments, strengthening labour standards and combating international child labour, forced labour and human trafficking.”

The move comes as Kenya stepped up talks for a new trade deal with Washington before the expiry of the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa), which allows sub-Saharan African countries to export thousands of products to the US without tariffs or quotas until 2025.

“We appreciate what has been achieved through Agoa, but it is time we moved to much closer trade arrangements that are mutually beneficial. We will not lose focus on concluding the FTA,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Tuesday when he bid farewell to outgoing US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter at State House, Nairobi.

Agoa grants 40 African States quota and duty-free access to the US market of more than 6,000 product lines. Statistics showed that the two-way goods trade between these nations totalled Sh106 billion in 2019, up 4.9 per cent from 2018.

The grant by ILAB comes as boost for the two nations eyeing enhanced trade between themselves but in an environment where there is more focus on compliance with global human rights and labour standards.

Employee welfare is a sensitive matter in the US, with businesses required to ensure their operations and dealings both at home and abroad complied with international labour standards. The US foreign policy, for example, typically portrays forced labour as a violation of international human rights standards that must be stamped out.

All new-generation free-trade agreements (FTAs) around the world include a sustainable-development clause between the parties promoting, among other things, a set of labour standards as well as conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

For instance, most of the United States’ and European Union’s FTAs contain provisions to protect the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association and forbid discrimination at the place of work.

A recent report by ILAB raised a concern over child labour in Kenya—an indication that the matter would get prominence in the employee welfare grant.

“Children in Kenya engage in the worst forms of child labour, including in domestic service and commercial sexual exploitation, each sometimes as a result of human trafficking. Children also engage in child labuor in agriculture,” the bureau said, pointing out that Kenya has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

Kenyans last October witnessed the significance of human rights practices in international trade when multiple European supermarket chains suspended supply orders from the Murang’a-based agricultural firm Kakuzi, citing human rights abuse claims.

The fallout from the human rights abuse claims against Kakuzi saw the withdrawal of supply contracts by UK’s Sainsbury’s, Germany’s discount grocer Lidl and Britain’s largest supermarket Tesco.

The Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed Kakuzi has been sued in the UK over alleged human rights abuses on its Kenyan plantations—placing it at risk of fines and compensation to the victims if found guilty.

Through its Kent-based parent Camellia Plc, the company has been sued over allegations of assault and sexual misconduct allegedly conducted by employees. The UK-listed company Camellia owns 50.7 per cent of Kakuzi.

Law firm Leigh Day said that 79 Kenyans had filed a legal claim in the High Court in London against Camellia for alleged human rights abuses by security guards employed by Kakuzi, its Kenyan subsidiary.

Camellia employs 78,000 people worldwide and says it is the largest avocado producer in Kenya, which according to the International Trade Centre is Africa’s biggest avocado exporter.

The accusations, dating from 2009 to January this year, include rapes, attacks on local villagers and a man being beaten to death, Leigh Day said.

Kakuzi has, however, rejected the claims made by Leigh Day, saying it did not “condone any criminal activities or behaviour by any of its employees”.