Ask your Question: Francis Atwoli

In this interactive series, we invite readers to send questions to select public figures. This week, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale responds to your questions. This week, Francis Atwoli, the secretary-general of the Central Organization of Trade Unions – Kenya, responds to your questions.

The country is witnessing strikes by workers in various sectors, mostly over low pay. What do you think the government should do to end these perennial strikes? 

Bonny Mutai, Londiani

This is the first government since independence to isolate the Ministry of Labour and Employment from handling industrial relations disputes when, in actual sense, the ministry hosts experts who the government can utilise in addressing such unrest. To address this, we must fully engage experts at the Ministry of Labour and relevant government officers should embrace dialogue in industrial matters.

Sir, you have been mediating between the striking doctors and the national and county governments but when you look at the Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is clearly a demand for higher salaries. Add this to the fact that the government is already spending a huge proportion of money on salaries for civil servants, overburdening the taxpayer. Do you have in mind considerations such as the state of the economy and challenges like drought during such negotiations? 

Eric Kariuki, Murang’a

You are 100 per cent correct and that is why doctors are negotiating with the government. In negotiations, you don’t always get what you want. As trade unionists we are alive to these economic dynamics and often we have approached our demands with an open mind.

Who bears most blame for the recent jailing of doctors’ union officials? 

Githuku Mungai, Nairobi

In view of the fact that the matter is still before the court and the mediation process on-going, it would not be right for me to apportion blame yet since this would jeopardise the negotiations. However, all that I spoke while in Mukuyuni, Makueni County, on February 12 about the ministry and the union has come to pass! I have been around for some time with three quarters of my life in the labour movement so if this was purely an industrial relations dispute matter I would have solved it in a matter of hours and when I speak out, you would rather listen lest it becomes too late! 

You have been at the helm of Cotu for a long time. Does democracy apply here and are there no other leaders who can do a better job than you? 

Eric Murithi

Cotu goes for elections every five years and I have been elected unopposed three times in democratic elections. Why would one view democracy as simply the change in leadership? And it is not only here in Kenya, I hold various elective positions globally as Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (president), Trade Union Federation of Eastern Africa (president), International Trade Union Confederation (vice-president), International Labour Organisation Governing Body Member, among others – all elected.







Why has Cotu turned into an opposition outfit whereas, in its mandate, it is a neutral umbrella for Kenyan workers? 

Peter Mbithi

This is far from the truth. Cotu remains neutral and non-partisan as an organisation but individual members can take any position on political matters since it is within their democratic purview to exercise their freedom of choice.

You have of late shown a passion for Luhya unity, including unveiling Musalia Mudavadi as the spokesman, yet ethnicity and clannism among Abaluhya seems to be a big hindrance to your efforts. What are you going to do to tackle these problems and maintain Luhya unity? 

George Busolo, Vihiga

Thank you very much for your views but equally I hope you have noticed the big changes being witnessed in the region. The resolve remains the same that those who used to underrate us will, for the first time in the coming elections, witness the community put their vote in a single ballot box for the presidency! Indeed, God has answered our prayers! The usual narrative of “Luhyas are divided” is no more!

Having imposed a spokesman on the Luhya people without their consent, does it mean people are supposed to do as you say, whether they like it or not? 

Erick Agade, Ikapolok Village, Malaba

The process of identifying the community spokesperson wasn’t a one-man show! Personally, I started this process way back in 2012 when I flew to the Mara with Musalia Mudavadi, Moses Wetang’ula and Cyrus Jirongo. It took me over a year consulting elders together with all senior politicians from the region on who is best suited to lead us. Of course all of us are capable but there must be one among equals to lead. I commissioned the University of Nairobi, an institution of repute, to undertake the research in order to avoid any interference and their results were announced at Bukhungu Stadium on December 31 last year for the first time and you all saw the researchers. So the issue of imposition or consent is neither  here nor there! This remains the most transparent process in our  history and even local leaders will agree.

How are you going to make sure that those who joined the “meat eating party” at the expense of voters are not re-elected in Western Kenya and what is the best way to have long-lasting Luhya unity? 

Hudson Nyongesa, Kakamega

Our people are already sensitised and whoever goes against their wishes, trust me, will never make any comeback no matter how much money they have. The community has already taken off and you can see those still wobbling around are now facing the wrath of the electorate. The unity founded on December 31, 2016 will live on  for quite a period of time; that I have no doubt about.

On many occasions, you have painted yourself as a corruption-free leader. However, before the death of unionist and Kabete MP George Muchai, he had threatened to reveal how you and those close to you had allegedly corruptly stashed away workers’ money. What do you have to say about this? 

Komen Moris, Eldoret

This was simply hot air orchestrated by the then Labour Minister who was all over the place trying to fight me over my firm stand on corruption and intrigues at the National Social Security Fund. In any case, it is not only my late brother (Muchai) who would have disclosed such since we have so many other officials within the trade union movement in Kenya who would do so if, indeed, I am culpable. He was alone out of a total of over 30 Cotu officials. On allegations of corruption, I insist, I am as clean and as white as snow.

The current labour laws have not been reviewed for a long time and do not protect the interests of workers, especially during retrenchment. This has made it easy for big companies to retrench workers at will with little pay while hiding under the labour laws. Cotu should move fast and propose amendments to the laws especially on redundancy. 

Seth Mwangani, Nairobi

Kenya’s labour laws continue to be cited as some of the most progressive not only on the continent but globally as well. These are laws that came into being in 2007, replacing our previous archaic laws that Cotu had to fight hard and even seek the funding of the International Labour Organisation to change and come up with a completely new set. However, there are a few areas that require amendments and Cotu is alive to this and, through our affiliates, we have tried our best in cushioning workers against issues of redundancy.

You normally sit at the periphery during industrial action by different workers’ unions, just unleashing hot air without any ultimate solution. A case in reference is the stalemate between the doctors and the government where you were given the opportunity to lead a truce but you failed. Don’t you think that Kenyans will no longer take you seriously? 

Benard Nyang’ondi, Mombasa

Benard Nyang’ondi, Mombasa

Foremost, all our 44-plus affiliated trade unions are independent. However, in case of any industrial action, Cotu comes in only on invitation by the relevant union. In the case of doctors, I went public that this was not just a dispute between employer and employee, which I would have solved in hours, but there were other underlying issues pitting the Cabinet Secretary and his Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Health. This has come to pass. Going back to my public pronouncements, you will realise that whatever I say may not attract your attention immediately but time has always proved me right! In any case, you can proceed and conduct your own research on the three individuals in whose pronouncements Kenyans believe: President Uhuru Kenyatta, Opposition leader Raila Odinga and Francis Atwoli. Period! 

In most of your speeches, you portray a lot of arrogance and disrespect. For example, you have constantly referred to the Jubilee Government as “serikali ya vijana wawili” and you often use the “washenzi” tag to target those you disagree with. As an elder, don’t you think such language is embarrassing? 

Arrogance and disrespect? Not me! I am a trade unionist and throughout my life I have lived to the calling of my work and, in the course of these duties, we agitate in order to fight and protect the interests of the members we represent. Among the social partners, we are the weakest as workers and if you don’t stand firm, you will be trampled upon at every opportunity especially by employers so I must project a face that will “take on employers.”  This should not be construed to be arrogance!

Equally I have a lot of respect for President Uhuru Kenyatta who requires the support of people like us in order to grow this economy for the benefit of all Kenyans. Such utterances equally should not be viewed as derogatory to the holder of the institution of the Presidency but taken positively. Remember, as an elder, I have a duty to correct things when they go wrong lest history will judge me harshly.

Many of your critics say you are busier with politics and you are identifying yourself as a Luhya leader rather than a Cotu leader. Can you convince Kenyans that you are issue-oriented? 

Abdi, Mandera

Abdi, Mandera

I convened a Cotu Executive Board meeting last year and formally requested the officials to give me leave away from the office to engage in efforts to identify a spokesperson for the Luhya community. This I carried out in my capacity as an elder from the Luhya community and even all subsequent meetings and consultations were all devoid of my hitherto Cotu Secretary-General’s “hat”. However, soon after the December 31, 2016 event at Bukhungu Stadium, I resumed my full time duties!

Mr Atwoli, as a fierce defender of the welfare of the disciplined services, can you please follow up with the Commissioner- General of Prisons why his officers cannot be granted off-days and a full 30 days’ leave as provided by the law. 

John Ogolla, Lambwe

The 30 days’ leave for the officers is guaranteed annually. However, off-days aren’t, except on individual arrangement with such officer’s immediate bosses. I will follow up. Meanwhile, the solution lies in securing a representation for our officers through a trade union which Cotu remains keen on achieving however long it will take.

When are Kenyan workers likely to witness a good pay increment beyond the “normal” negligible minimal rise? Francis Njuguna, Kibichoi

It depends on the national economic performance and also on prudent financial management by both the State and the private sector. Wage increases are pegged on reduction in inflation rate and that can only be achieved if we can all spur the economic growth of our country in a similar way the previous Narc government of President Mwai Kibaki did between 2002 and 2007, growing the economy from a negative percentage to a whopping 7.1pc in 2007.

Are you considering supporting financially and morally candidates and aspirants for elective office from the Mulembe Nation who subscribe to and believe in your ideology of a united Luhya community? 

Ken Wafula, Kitale

Like a father and an elder with global experience in election matters, I will be available for advice whenever called upon, not only to politicians from Mulembe Nation but to all Kenyans of goodwill. 

Mheshimiwa, I and many others have been working for (company’s name withheld as we could not independently verify the claims by the time of going to press) for three years as casuals and whenever we complain about not getting permanent employment we are threatened yet we are being paid peanuts. Wewe kama mtetezi wetu, unaeza tusaidiaje (As the workers’ representative, how can you help us)?

Joseph Mbugwa, Mukuru kwa Njenga

This is where government should allocate more funds to the Ministry of Labour and Employment which is charged with responsibilities of inspection to curb exploitation of labour which is now rampant in Kenya as opposed to other African countries. Cotu remains committed in pushing the central government to adequately fund the Labour Ministry towards this goal.

What is Cotu’s plan in checking outsourcing, benefits cuts and other borderline practices common with multinationals, especially in Nairobi’s Industrial Area?

Elias Odawo, Nairobi

Our research and economics department has already derived the necessary data on these various forms of unfair labour practices and now working through our relevant affiliated trade unions in combating the menace which all amounts to enslaving our people. Some Kenya Power staff are on casual employment, including those who have worked for over 20 years and are almost reaching retirement age. However, Cotu has increased deductions to 150 per cent saying you are fighting for us. Comment. Wycliffe

Our affiliate Union, the Kenya Electrical Trades and Allied Workers Union, (Ketawu) led by my first Assistant Secretary General Ernest Nadome has successfully negotiated for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will see a conversion this year 2017 of 350 casual employees at Kenya Power to permanent and pensionable terms and an additional 350 from a three months’ contract to a three-year contract. Secondly, their terms and conditions of work, including basic salary, have been reviewed as no casual will earn less than Sh21,000 and those converted no less than Sh35,000. This conversion will again be the same in the years 2018, 2019 and 2020.  

In the spirit of good governance and continuity, what are you doing to make sure the organisation won’t be in a crisis in case you leave considering that everything revolves around you? 

Paul Juma

As Cotu Secretary General, I have no doubt that my departure from Cotu will in any way render the organisation moribund! Behind me I have experienced and capable trade unionists whom I have exposed and prepared enough to take over the mantle of leadership to even greater heights. Further, I run this organisation through consultation and alongside all my other elected colleagues and that’s why murmurs in our organization will never find headlines because everyone is on board. Our succession plan is so robust that anticipating a crisis would be unheard of.

You have been the Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions-Kenya (Cotu) for a long time. Don`t you think you have overstayed in the role to the extent that you may not be representing the best interest of workers? 

David Kigo

Indeed it is true that I have been in the labour movement three quarters of my life. But as the years go by, I have become even more militant, making my colleagues not to allow me to leave and I am always democratically elected. I am the first ever COTU Secretary General to be re-elected three times unopposed!

Sir, what policy does Cotu have to address the high youth unemployment and low wages? 

 Foremost, it has been Cotu’s desire for the government of Kenya to develop policies related to labour matters, including the employment policy, investment policy, wage policy among others. This has been a tall order but I am optimistic that development of these policies is in their draft stages and will be a reality in the near future.

However, we have continued to engage government on modalities aimed at addressing the country’s youth unemployment situation through Cotu’s research and economic department as our affiliates continue to tackle the issue of low wages through their respective negotiated Collective bargaining Agreements, and none of these CBAs are negotiated below the minimum wage!

How can we trust the trade union movement yet when our employment was terminated illegally at Print Park Plastic Product and we did not get any assistance? 

Johnstone Banzi

The issue of Print Park Plastic Product is currently being handled by both Cotu and our affiliate Union especially soon after the employees from the company visited our offices and were addressed by one of our officers in charge of industrial relations. We should have a solution on the issue in dispute in two weeks’ time

What is the solution to the labour relations crisis in the health and education sector? Is the labour relations Act No 14 of 2007 Part VIII Dispute resolution sufficient to solve the crisis? 

Paul Gesimba, Nairobi

Yes, it is absolutely sufficient in addressing the matter but the problem has been compounded by the entrenchment of divisions pitting the Cabionet Secretary and the PS.

Sir, are you aware there will always be strikes because: (1)human wants are insatiable (2)we all equate money with happiness (3)the more one gets a pay hike the more one craves for more?

Vincent Owino, Siaya

Absolutely and that is why different institution exist in pushing the world to perceived realism. The simple question is, can equity prevail?

Sometimes when you perceive that Wananchi from Western Kenya are getting diverted politically, you openly call them “shenzi”. Please comment on this. 

Githuku Mungai, Nairobi

Shenzi is an old Swahili demeaning word that used to be said against us when we were young by our fathers. It doesn’t mean that you are real a mshenzi.

Hello sir, why is the registrar of trade union reluctant to register new unions like one to represent clinical officers despite numerous court cases? Why are clinical officers being discriminated against while nurses and doctors have been allowed to form their own unions? 

Amos Muriithi Ngari, Kirinyaga

Sir, under what circumstances was Cotu formed and what are the challenges is it facing at the moment? 

Hesbon Koome, Maseno         

The then divisions within the labour movement coupled with infighting among leaders led the government into intervening and forming a task force that came up with Cotu as the workers’ umbrella body in the country in 1965. Our mandate remains the same as it were in 1965 and it has grown bigger with 2.5 million members and as an organisation fighting for the rights of workers, we keep facing normal global and local economic challenges.

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