February 10, 2009
Nairobi Once I am stuck for what seems like forever in a traffic jam waiting with hundreds of other cars for a Kenyan policeman to wave us into a turnabout (traffic circle), I know I’m back in Nairobi. It was a pleasant surprise to be picked up by a young driver for the Solidarity Center whom I had met years ago, so it was like seeing an old friend and catching up.
Later Rick Hall, an old friend, Fort Worth native, and comrade from SEIU, who had come with the Organizers’ Forum most recently to Istanbul and then introduced me to the labor organizing in Jordan on his first stent with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, and I caught up at some length with his new assignment directing the Center’s work in Kenya. He seemed exhilarated at the night-and-day difference in organizing in Kenya compared to the Middle East, if nothing else because the prevalence of spoken English meant he was able to connect directly with the workers in a better way.
The first time I had visited union organizing projects here several years ago, I met with stewards at Wal-Mart subcontracting plants. The growth of the textile workers union in Mombasa and Nairobi was the big success at that time four years ago because they had swelled to over 10,000 members in a surge. Unfortunately all of that work — and much of that union — was swept away with the textile protections ceased.
The big news now was the passage of a series of reforms in the Kenyan labor law over the last year with the newest version of the government. The law had already had decent organizing rights, like the 50% plus one, card-check provisions that US workers are desperately hoping to win. Talking to Rick, the reforms importantly seemed to come in some of the enforcements which previously had ghettoized organizing in a specialized labor court whose rulings then still had to be appealed to a higher court for enforcement adding three or four years to the process. The new law elevated the labor court to the higher status making its rulings binding, which should make a significant difference in contract acquisition and enforcement.
I was especially struck by his description of the new protections that were given to domestic workers by the law. The law finally put them under a different minimum wage protection which if obeyed and enforced would likely raise wages for the ubiquitous domestic workers in so many homes in Nairobi to three or four times what they were receiving now. Obviously the newness of the law and the way of domestic labor meant that none of this was happening now, opening up the door for major work by the domestic workers union.
I listened with fascination remembering the same situation more than 30 years ago in when household workers first came under the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA and therefore were covered by the minimum wage act for the first time. This became the organizing drive that brought me from Little Rock to New Orleans to begin my part of adding the labor wing to what had been exclusively community organizing at the time. We had organizers working bus stops and street car lines to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee to force compliance with the minimum wage. Those were wild times that started us all down a road that we are still travelling many years later in organizing informal workers.
It would be exciting to figure out a way to help make this new law work!