In mid-July this year, what could be described as a rare occurrence in labour relations played out in Kitui County.
The Kitui County Governor and Kitui County workers’ trade unions officials came out of a three-hour closed door meeting holding hands after striking a deal to avert disruption of service.
More often than not, the role of trade unions in Kenya has been portrayed as a confrontational affair with downing of tools and disruptive strikes.
However, as Kitui County demonstrated, workers grievances can be resolved amicably when parties swallow their pride and harmoniously seek the way forward.
In most cases, management-union relationships feel like an arranged or forced marriage without the option of divorce. Nevertheless, since unions and employers are in it together for the long haul, they might as well try to get along and perhaps find some commonality of interests for the betterment of the workplace.
The path industrial relations should be taking needs to lead to collaboration, not confrontation.
In order to achieve this, upper levels of management must demonstrate the desire to initiate this type of relationship change with its union counterparts. The management should not fall into the trap of viewing union representatives as a thorn in the flesh that often leads to mistreatment of union officials.
Unions, too, should adopt reasonable demands in their efforts to improve the welfare of their members and espouse flexibility in negotiating for better terms.
If the union representatives are allowed to provide input prior to the decisions management are required to make, then hopefully better decisions are made by incorporating input from front-line employees.
The interests of the two groups may diverge in the short-term, but they can be made compatible, since both parties need an efficient and profitable organisation to survive.
Today, the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act provide for freedom of association. Every Kenyan worker has a right to form, join or participate in the activities of a trade union.
However, it is disheartening to see that many workers, especially those in informal sectors like domestic workers and those working for some of the multinational and foreign corporations do not have full access to trade unions.
In China, workers don’t have the freedom of association. There is only one legally mandated trade union, namely the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). All enterprise trade unions have to be affiliated to the ACFTU via a hierarchical network of local and regional union federations.
The ACFTU is primarily under the control and direction of the Chinese Communist Party. Any attempt to establish an independent trade union movement is seen by the Party as political threat.
Despite this background, Chinese companies operating in Kenya should acquaint themselves with Kenyan labour laws and follow them.
However, this is not the case. According to employees, some Chinese companies in Kenya do not sign Collective Bargaining Agreements.
According to the principle of absolute majority, if the majority of company employees join the union, the company must sign the CBA. In order to keep the number of union members below the majority line, Chinese employers often expel employees who join unions on flimsy grounds.
Other Chinese companies deal with workers’ grievances by employing the ‘cold treatment’ by stopping the project for a few days with the hope that if the employees don’t work, they will have no wages, and as a result, they won’t support their families, and then they will automatically stop the strike and continue to work.
The recent influx of Chinese companies into the Kenyan market has revealed that most State-owned Chinese corporations are willing to communicate with and co-operate with unions.
However, most private Chinese companies refuse to cooperate with the unions.
It is such companies that the labour movement in Kenya should look out for and through respective unions as well as the Central Organisation of Trade Unions(COTU) ensure that they abide by the labour laws if they intend to do business within the country’s borders.