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Economy

State headed for battle with Cotu over new union

   Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli speaks during this year’s Labour Day celebrations at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. FILE
Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli speaks during this year’s Labour Day celebrations at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. FILE 

A new trade union to champion the welfare of parastatal workers has been registered in what is seen as another attempt by the executive at weakening key affiliates of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu).

The National Union of Kenya Parastatal Employees (Nukpe) has been granted the go-ahead to begin recruiting workers employed in State-owned corporations over the next six months.

“The proposed National Union of Kenya Parastatal Employees has been authorised to undertake lawful activities in order to establish a trade union,” said a July 9 notice signed by the registrar of trade unions William Langat.

Existing labour unions have vowed to oppose the move that may result in Kenya’s biggest union when the application for full registration comes up for hearings involving interested parties.

The new union has more than 200 State corporations that employ more than 500,000 workers to recruit members from.

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Nukpe will be required to make a fresh application for full registration to the National Labour Board after the six months for it to starting operating as a labour union.

Nukpe said it wants to mobilise all employees of State agencies into a labour movement that would fight to improve their terms and conditions of service and lobby for a better working environment.

“Parastatal employees have for long worked under trade unions dominated by private company employees and their issues have not been properly addressed,” said Nukpe interim secretary general Simion Kirui.

Mr Kirui said the union would also take on the culture of patronage in the sector where internal recruitment and promotions are ignored in favour of external hiring, including that of board of directors.

Its formation comes barely a week after President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed a task force to rationalise the management of parastatals and align them to the Constitution.

The parastatal sector is made up of firms in financial services, commercial and manufacturing, regulatory bodies, public universities, and training and research institutes, regional development authorities and tertiary colleges.

State corporation workers are currently represented by different labour unions together with employees from the private sector based on their trade.

Mr Kirui argued that parastatal employees have unique needs such as inadequate representation during privatisation and layoffs.

“Trade unions affiliated to Central organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) are predominantly from the private sector and they understand little about the challenges faced by employees in government institutions,” Mr Kirui said.

Officials of unions affiliated to Cotu have accused the Labour ministry of allowing the ‘clandestine’ formation of Nukpe, saying the government was encouraging the proliferation of trade unions as a ploy to cripple the giant umbrella body.

“We will oppose it [Nukpe]. The intention is to cause wrangles and weaken the trade union movement in Kenya,” said Benson Okwaro, secretary general of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU).

CWU has about 6,300 members drawn from parastatals such as Telkom Kenya, Posta, Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).

Mr Simon Sang, secretary general of the 7,000-member Dock Workers Union, said such a union wouldn’t work because labour unions needed to be industry-based.

“There is no industry known as parastatals. It has never been done anywhere else,” said Mr Sang whose union draws its membership from the Kenya Ports Authority and the Kenya Ferry Services.

Kenya Union of Commercial Food and Allied Workers (Kucfaw) said parastatal employees were adequately represented and that there was no need for another union.

“You only register a new union when workers agitate for it due to lack of sufficient representation,” said Kucfaw secretary general Boniface Kavuvi.

Mr Kavuvi said his union has about 6,000 members from allied State-owned firms such as National Social Security Fund (NSSF), National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), Kenya Wine Agencies (Kwal), National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), National Museums of Kenya and New KCC.

Isaiah Kubai, secretary general of Banking Insurance and Finance Union (Bifu), said the registrar of trade unions should be prudent in licensing labour groups, adding that parastatal is an ‘amorphous’ group.

The formation of Nukpe comes after trade unions representing public sector workers ganged up in November last year against Cotu and formed their own umbrella body dubbed Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions of Kenya (Pusetu).

Its membership consists of four unions namely; Union of Kenya Civil Servants (UKCS), the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut), University Academic Staff Union (Uasu) and the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet).

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) encourages trade union pluralism in principle, allowing workers to establish multiple labour unions without any interference.

But while the ILO Convention No. 87 upholds the right to establish and join labour federations, the UN agency warns that it may be used to abuse the labour movement.

“Governments have supported or condoned the creation of yellow unions and puppet unions, stoked rivalries and divisions between unions and used intimidation and bribery,” reads a 2010 report by the ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV).

It is best exemplified by the formation of Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) in 1998 to counter the influence of the giant Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) which was founded in 1959.

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