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cc Kenya's president and the prime minister knew people would be angered by the inadequate increases the government has made to the minimum wage, writes Joachim Omolo Ouko, and that’s why they stayed away from Labour Day celebrations. Workers threw stones and ‘shouted at’ labour minister John Munyes, who was invited byCOTU to make the government address in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Despite recent growth in GDP, essential commodities are still too expensive for the average Kenyan worker, says Ouko, with many unable to send their children to school, let alone feed them.

President Mwai Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka knew the consequences of the outcome of yesterday’s Labour Day celebrations. That is why they kept away from the Nairobi Uhuru Park to address the workers.

That is why when labour minister John Munyes was invited by Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) secretary Francis Atwoli to address workers, they did not only throw stones at him, but also shouted at him. Traditionally such celebrations are addressed by the president and not the labour minister.

The president could not attend because he knew that the minimum wages he increased by 20 per cent for agricultural sector workers, and 18 per cent for general workers would not be received well by them.

In his unfinished speech read on his behalf by Munyes, the president directed that the statutory minimum wage for those in the agricultural sector be increased to Ksh3,043 and for the general wages category the minimum wage for those working in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu to be adjusted to Ksh6,130, while all municipalities, including Mavoko, Ruiru, and Limuru town councils to have a minimum wage of Ksh5,655 and other areas to be Ksh3,270.

The increment did not make much difference, as the workers in agriculture sector had been taking home a minimum wage of Ksh2,536 since the 2006 increment. The different was only about Sh 1,000 increment since then.

Workers did not welcome the increment because living conditions in Kenya have become the most expensive today. For instance, in 1978 the cost of a 2kg packet of maize flour was Ksh2.80, but today the vast majority of Kenyans cannot afford the flour.

When Kibaki government took over in 2002, flour was costing Ksh27, unlike Moi’s tenure when it was Ksh24. In 2003 the price doubled from Ksh27 to Ksh54. There is fear that by next year it will double again.

Unlike during Kenyatta’s rule, when Kenya promoted rapid economic growth through public investment, encouragement of smallholder agricultural production and incentives for private (often foreign) industrial investment, during Kibaki’s tenure economic growth through agricultural products is history.

Shortly after independence gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual average of 6.6 per cent between 1963 and 1973. Agricultural production grew by 4.7 per cent annually during the same period, stimulated by redistributing estates, diffusing new crop strains, and opening new areas to cultivation.

When Moi took over from Kenyatta things became worst, especially from 1991 to 1993 when Kenya had its worst economic performance since independence. Growth in GDP stagnated, and agricultural production shrank at an annual rate of 3.9 per cent. Inflation reached a record 100 per cent in August 1993, and the government's budget deficit was over 10 per cent of GDP.

Although economic growth began to recover after 2002 when Kibaki took over from Moi, registering 2.8 per cent growth in 2003, 4.3 per cent in 2004, 5.8 per cent in 2005, 6.1 per cent in 2006, and 7.0 per cent in 2007, ordinary citizens continued to be poorer and poorer.

Essential commodities became too expensive. Many parents cannot afford taking their children to school, leave alone feeding them.

* This story was first published by People for Peace in Africa (PPA).
* Joachim Omolo Ouko is a priest who works with People for Peace in Africa (PPA).
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