Kenya Grapples with Skewed Labour Policies

Published on 14th July 2009

Poverty neighbours affluence  Photo: Courtesy
Import substitution and export processing firms are supposed to expand and obliterate the non-modern sectors of the labour market. These strategies have been pursued without consideration for the type of education, health needs and protection required by workers. The import substitution industrialization strategy, in particular, was pursued within the context of a labour market with the following characteristics: surplus labour, inadequate skills, male workers, and rural migrant workers who eventually retire to the rural areas. Each of these characteristics has a significant impact on welfare and participation in informal institutions. 

The surplus labour strand ensured that wages were kept low. Workers were hired and fired at will, since they were on casual labour contracts and could easily be replaced every two weeks. Casuals are usually uncertain about their job contract, and work under the constant fear of being made redundant at any time. Others consider themselves lucky and would therefore not want to jeopardize their precarious jobs by being actively involved in trade unions. Subsequently, as the industries thrived, the workers became impoverished and sought refuge in informal institutions. 

This perhaps explains why hubs of import substitution industrialization, such as Thika town and Ruaraka area in Nairobi, have poor housing, educational and health facilities, and are hubs for informal institutions. In Thika, for instance, workers from the vast import substituting industries live in Kiandutu, Pilot and Majengo estates, while waiting for their job contracts to be regularized. The Ruaraka area has some very old import substituting industries and new export processing industries, but it is ringed by the squalid neighbourhoods of Kariobangi, Baba Ndogo and Mathare.  

To compound matters, employment policies in industry are biased in favour of male workers, leaving out a large number of women. This male bias has arisen from the perception that men are the breadwinners, supposedly providing for everyone in the family, including women, children, the sick and the elderly . This male bias was introduced by the colonialists through labour conscriptions and taxation. The men were forced to become workers in the capitalist economy through taxation, imprisonment, conscription, and later through mission education. This created an attitude towards wage employment and initiated a desire for self-employment, hence the need for individuals to have something to do after work hours or during their off days, for example, on weekends and vacations. This was coupled with the notion that wage employment is Western and foreign, and that to maintain one’s “Africanness”, one had to be a small-scale trader, a farmer or a livestock keeper. 

Differences in resource allocation between different parts of the city result in some informal sectors, and just like in 1968, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) wanted to know who controls industry in Kenya. The same question could be raised in reference to Nairobi: who controls the space economy of Nairobi? It is true that the informal buildings and their surroundings are, to say the least, unattractive or filthy. But how did this come about?

The city council, which keeps downtown Nairobi spotlessly clean, is also responsible for the cleanliness in Karindundu. However, a city council employee living in Karindundu will spend the whole day cleaning in downtown Nairobi but in the evening he or she will walk on a mountain of garbage on the way home to Karindundu. While he could have been splashing and cleaning with plenty of water in downtown Nairobi during the daytime, in the evening he will have to scramble for water from a communal tap at Karindudu. 

The paradox of keeping wages low in the so–called labour surplus economies sacrifices professionalism and subjects people to informality. For, example, a poorly city council askari (security officer) will spend his day at work chasing street vendors and making arrests, but in the evening he will board the same matatu (Nissan mini bus used for public transport) with those he did not arrest and perhaps stop at a roadside maize roaster to buy a cob of maize to give him energy to walk to his home in Mathare North, since he has not eaten the whole day. An underpaid government architect will spend the day reviewing ambassadorial housing designs and approving house plans in a government office only to find once he is home that his landlady is waiting at his door in his rented flat in Zimmerman estate, announcing that she is going to build an additional room in her tall building with immediate effect, thus cramping living conditions even more.  

A university professor will spend time teaching about the advantages and disadvantages of shopping malls and value chains, but in the evening she will stop at Githurai round-about on Thika Road and walk into the muddy market to buy cheap vegetables. A civil society activist or a gender activist will shout herself hoarse about disempowerment, violence and poverty in a five-star Nairobi hotel, but then will hoot and scream when a mama mboga (woman vegetable vendor) slows traffic while crossing the road. An industrialist will boast about his contributions to the national economy by paying tax, yet three-quarters of the factory workers cannot afford the bread he bakes, the beer he brews, or wear the shirt he makes or use the cooking fat he produces. 

This is the life of Nairobians, where experts and non-experts are all reduced to helplessness and hopelessness by power centres, both global and local, that are beyond their control. Global power centres which impact significantly on Kenya could be anything from Western universities and research centres churning out tons of publications about development, to financiers and international NGOs. They could also be well-meaning philanthropists who propose untested projects to sort out problems in Nairobi. Local power centres range from churches, insider government bureaucrats and politicians, tele-evangelists, musicians, civil society activists, certain individuals with access to money and political power.  

Popular music such as Muthini wa Ngai (God’s poor), and comedies such as the Kihenjo series and Inspekta Mwala, satirize poverty and constitute part of the informal economy entertainment, which vividly captures how many voices are taken for granted when decisions are being made concerning social, economic and political issues. These artists largely demonstrate that the informal economy is the outcome of a political economy context, which is hinged on local and global concerns. 

By Mary Kinyanjui,

Institute for Development Studies

University of Nairobi.

Written while she was Visiting Research Fellow, UNRISD


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