Kenya Airways (KQ) pilots' strike this week that threatened to precipitate paralysis in the aviation sector has ended after intervention by the labour courts. I found myself thinking about a former CEO of the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE), the late Tom Owuor and the question I was asking myself was this. Where are our statesmen and national leaders who enjoy broad legitimacy across the industrial relations space?
It is a pertinent question because when you break a strike through a court order, you only achieve a lull. We have a big leadership crisis in the industrial sector. The reason we enjoyed industrial peace in the past was how this segment of society used to nurture men and women of principle, character and calibre.
As a young journalist, what struck you first as you interviewed the late Owuor was his unwavering belief in the principles of negotiation and bargaining. In his world, no industrial dispute was beyond negotiations. He approached his work as if negotiation and bargaining were articles of faith.
Today, our industrial relations system is in a state of flux. This week, it was the pilots but there are signs of trouble brewing at the union of university lecturers. Unions and associations representing doctors, nurses, aviation workers, and teachers are also in a state of ferment.
We are headed to our own version of a winter of discontent. You just have to count the number of strikes and work stoppages that have happened in the last two years alone to appreciate that systems and institutions which delivered industrial peace have collapsed. We experience more strikes in the essential services than in the non-essential sectors. The strike by pilots has shown that Kenya urgently needs to overhaul and re-design its industrial relations system.
In South Africa, you hear about a Conciliation and Mediation Commission — an independent and statutory dispute resolution institution. They have arbitration and bargaining councils, labour courts and a labour court of appeal. Here, it seems the constitutional reform process we went through left employer with a worker with a bloated sense of rights.
We need to rethink return-to-work legislations. We need to rethink the issue of protection of innocent third parties. During the strike by pilots, exporters lost hundreds of millions of shillings. What do I have to do with the pilots’ strike when all I want is to take my mother for treatment?
We need to debate strikes in essential services. Is it fair to deny a sick person nursing care just because nurses have a dispute with their own employers? In the UK, unions must achieve a minimum 50 percent turnout in a ballot before engaging in strikes.
There has also been a proposal requiring that 50 percent of a company’s entire workforce must vote in favour of industrial action for it to have legitimacy. There have been discussions about legislation for a minimum level of services that has to be maintained during strikes that injure innocent third parties.
In the past, the foundations of labour relations in this country were based on a clear distinction between unionisable employees and management staff who were prohibited from joining unions. In those days, policy discouraged small craft unions while promoting industry-wide unions.
Today, doctors, nurses, clinical officers are allowed to negotiate separately. In the case of doctors, a consultant who has a clinic in town and is teaching medicine at university is allowed to join a union.
The union of Kenya Airways pilots represents and negotiates bargaining agreements on behalf of both pilots who are management staff and those in the low cadres. Kenya Airways has to negotiate with multiple unions who represent different cadres.
When I look at Kenya Airways, I do not just see its balance sheet, but what the airline does for the national economy. I don’t buy the argument that KQ should be allowed to go bankrupt since the government has no business being in business.
Just the other day, the government of South Africa supported their national airline’s long-term turnaround strategy by giving permanent financial guarantees amounting to an equivalent of Sh99 billion.
When Malaysia Air fell into trouble, the government eliminated private interests in the company by injecting massive fresh capital. Ethiopian Airlines gets massive State subsidies, including tight controls on access rights in its skies.
Successful airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar benefit from massive State support, principally through massive aircraft orders and investments in home airport hubs.