Women Labour Empowerment through Trade Unions in Kenya

Our guest contribution for this month with insights on the role of women in Kenya’s trade unionism and the need for a more structural female labour empowerment

Photo: Damaris Muhika, COTU Kenya

As Kenya prepares to celebrate the International Labour Day on 1 May, there are expectations from a majority of Kenyan workers to see a promised increase in wages and the implementation of better work related policies. The Kenyan Labour force whose female percentage in Kenya was at 46 per cent, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators, compiled from officially recognized sources in 2014 when it was last measured.

Through its office in Kenya, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung continues to work closely with trade unions, including the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) to champion their labour rights. We spoke to Damaris Muhika, a COTU official and expert on the developments and gains benefitting women in the labour unions.

What is the role of trade unions in championing women economic empowerment and labour rights in Kenya and globally?

DM: In Kenya, COTU represents about 4 million workers, 50% of whom are women in the public and private sectors of the economy. With the increasing number of educated women entering the workforce, there is a consistent paradigm shift with more of them showing interest and performing well in trade union leadership roles.

Through negotiations for better wages and better terms of employment or through tougher measures such as court decisions or labour strikes, trade unions have shaped the relations between employers and employees. Besides their active fight for better working conditions, trade unions have a role of ensuring that countries ratify and introduce key ILO Conventions into their national legislations which are instrumental in achieving gender equality in the world. Some of these Conventions include the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156) and Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183).

To increase women members’ participation in trade union activities, there is a need to develop and initiate a comprehensive capacity building and empowerment education programme for women workers. Such programmes should especially target young women to enhance their awareness of their rights so that they can claim those rights from employers and governments.

What challenges are unique to women in their workplace engaging with trade unions?

DM: Kenyan communities are generally patriarchal in nature. In addition, Trade unionism in Kenya is closely intertwined with the struggle for independence, a fight which was largely dominated by men. This context has fuelled the perception that trade unionism is a masculine affair, hence many women shy away from active participation.

Secondly, women’s oppression occurs within the context of unequal gendered power relations. Programmes and activities, such as collective bargaining, do not take account of the specific needs of women members. There is also an active and direct domination over women through sexual harassment and open discrimination, especially in terms of recruitment and promotions.

Furthermore, there exists no platform where young women can interact and network with other women who are in a higher social, economic and political leadership and who could assist through a structured mentorship programme. Consequently, young upcoming women leaders lack a support framework in their quest for growth.

Do trade unions support women inclusion in their leadership?

DM: There are deliberate efforts by unions to include women in their structural decision making organs. For instance, a majority of COTU (K) affiliate unions have reviewed their constitutions to include women in leadership, right from the shop floor level to their executive boards. Of significance is the recent endorsement of a COTU (K) Gender Policy which acknowledges that women are usually in a disadvantaged position as compared to men, hence there is a need to mainstream their issues in all its structural operations. Currently, COTU (K) has four women appointed to its executive board while many more are serving at the same level in its affiliate unions.

How has your journey been in trade union leadership?

DM: I was introduced into trade unionism when I joined the Kenya Union of Commercial Food and Allied Workers Union while working as an accountant at the National Cereals and Produce Board. Later, I joined the national centre, COTU (K), at the technical level. My role in the trade union movement include the capacity building of workers on their labour rights as an associate trainer and the area of women empowerment to promote their financial inclusion. In addition, I represent workers at the National Social Security Fund as a trustee to ensure that retirees enjoy a decent livelihood in their sunset years in line with ILO Decent Work Agenda's key pillar on social protection.

What is your advice to women at the workplace and the need to join trade unions?

DM: Every woman should enlist and actively participate in trade union activities. By joining unions, women can enhance their collective strength to expose inequalities at different societal levels, fight injustices, resist exploitation and demand fair employment conditions.

Titus Kaloki is programme coordinator at Friedrich-Ebert-Sifting Kenya.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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