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Kenya Unions Demand Wage Increase, Threaten Protests

  • Michael Onyiego

Ugandan opposition leader Kizze Besigye arrives to receive medical treatment at Nairobi hospital Kenya, April 29, 2011

Ugandan opposition leader Kizze Besigye arrives to receive medical treatment at Nairobi hospital Kenya, April 29, 2011

As the country celebrates International Worker's Day, Kenya's unions are demanding higher wages and threatening Egypt-style protests if their demands are not met.

On Monday, Kenyans around the country relaxed with family and friends thanks to the public holiday to celebrate the international labor movement. But as the day wound down, a storm was brewing between Kenya’s largest labor group, the Central Organization of Trade Unions, or COTU, and the government.

COTU held a rally Sunday in Nairobi’s Uhuru Parkto to demand an increase in the country’s minimum wage, and government vigilance with respect to the rising prices of food and fuel.

The atmosphere was somewhat tense, with several high-ranking politicians, including the president and prime minister, failing to appear as reportedly promised. People called for cheaper essential items, such flour, and also chanted "Besigye" in support of Kizza Besigye who is leading the "Walk to Work" protests in neighboring Uganda over similar issues.

In Kenya’s three largest cities, Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, the minimum wage stands at just 6,743 Kenyan shillings, or about $80 per month. At the rally, COTU Secretary-General Francis Atwoli demanded the government raise the minimum wage by 60 percent.

But the hundreds in attendance were disappointed shortly thereafter by Kenyan Labor Minister John Munyes.

With rain beginning to disperse the crowds, Munyes briefly addressed the crowd, announcing his ministry would increase the minimum wage by 12.5 percent rather than the 60 demanded by COTU. The increase will earn Kenya’s urban workers an extra ten dollars per month.

COTU and Kenya’s labor movement are unlikely to be satisfied with the incremental raise, and Secretary-General Atwoli indicated as much Sunday.

Speaking before Munyes, the labor leader said the group would serve the government notice of a strike if the wage increase was not reasonable. Atwoli said he would hold discussions with other members of civil society to organize mass protests by the end of the month.

Atwoli also warned the government to fully implement Kenya’s new constitution by August or they would see protests similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia. "The labor movement will take over by force!"

By Kenyan law, the minimum wage in Kenya must be reviewed at least once every two years. Last year there was a 10 percent increase in wages, bringing the total to 22.5 percent in the last two years.