Informal Worker Organizing in Kenya

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Discussion with AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Nairobi

Nairobi Our annual check-in with the AFL-CIO’s Nairobi based Solidarity Center working in various eastern African countries like Uganda and Tanzania in addition to Kenya underscored my belief that the future of organizing has to be among the growing numbers of informal workers. Talking with director, Rick Hall, the real organizing excitement and accomplishment seems to be found in collective agreements won for floral agricultural workers and important new drives with informal fisherman around Lake Victoria among all of the water-sharing countries.

More worrisome was hearing the continued difficulty in implementing the important improvements in standards that had been established for urban and rural minimum wage rates and in other critical areas like the measures protecting domestic workers. The potential impacts of these measures are huge. As we all talked (the ACORN Kenyan organizers, Paladin Partners, and Solidarity Center staff) it was hard not to think about how door-to-door campaigns might work. When Rick mentioned that he wished they could canvass the middle and upper income neighborhoods distributing the standards and getting signed recognitions from householders to actually pay the minimums and provide the benefits, I found myself telling about the 1978 campaign when I moved back to New Orleans with the Household Workers Organizing Committee when we were forcing compliance with for domestic workers who were just gaining coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA in that year and trying to make examples out of employers (the Gambino bakery family in city was our big “shame” target) who were paying way below and not paying the required social security payments. Now more than 30 years later Kenya is ahead of much of the world, and certainly Africa, but still has to move a campaign to make the law come alive.

The other story that was disappointing was hearing the ineffective enforcement program by the Labor Department in Kenya of minimum wage violations. Rick and his team were delicate, but it sounded too often like the act of making complaints by workers and unions was seen too frequently as an opportunity by inspectors to cash in from the companies by looking the other way. Seemed like another situation where the “crowdsourcing” tools we were talking about this week in Nairobi might also be effective for our friends and allies in labor unions.

Nonetheless, the story in eastern Africa is still encouraging as a bright light for organizing and organizers fearlessly putting together new and effective strategies and breaking ground for informal worker union. A story from Uganda of a terrible problem in a fish processing center that was the springboard to the fisherman’s organizing where a lockout pushed 400 workers out on the street with 40 active committee members fired when the plant reopened and hundreds of police working for the state and the company against the workers, also reminded all of us why this work is both so hard, and so important.

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