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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Place Jua Kali workers at the center of election manifestos

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

Ten years ago, I listened to a jua kali car mechanic displaced from the path of a new ring road by my home. A decade on, the nation has experienced over a trillion shillings in public infrastructural investment. Have we kept ordinary people in the centre of this investment and what lessons can aspirants and parties learn for their policy manifestos?

Aduda had serviced cars for fifteen years on a road reserve before KURA and JICA agreed to build the badly needed road linking Ngong road to James Gichuru road. The irony of having to close his garage to make way for a road that would bring more traffic was not lost on both of us. Having personally documented and organised against tens of forced evictions of homes and demolished informal businesses since, I am convinced that public infrastructural investment remains one of Kenya’s greatest obstacles to equitable and inclusive cities.

Aduda belongs to a class of thirteen million informal workers or 83 per cent of the country’s labour force. Responsible for 34 per cent of the economy, most of them are under the age of 35. Besides mechanics, there are fabricators, plumbers, welders, spray-painters, and panel-beaters among others. There are also the employees of motor trading companies, local assemblers of cars, batteries and a myriad of accessory parts that you or I would be hard pressed to name but would be immobilised without.

Their interests are represented by three unions namely, the Engineering Workers Union, the Electrical Trades and Allied Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW). Three years ago, 7,100 strong AUKMW reached agreement with 4,000 members of the Ambira Jua Kali and Migingo Self Help Group Associations to work more closely together. As aspirants and parties scramble for votes and policy clarity how to govern our 47 counties and the nation, it is to these associations that they could turn to for new ideas.

Four critical issues pre-occupy this critical sector. They include gazettement of the National Automotive Policy to gradually phase out the importation of cars older than eight years and encourage “Build Kenya, Sell Kenya”. They also include the full implementation of the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act to ensure that 30 per cent of Government vehicles are locally assembled and the immediate lifting of the blanket Presidential ban on scrap metal trading. Lastly, Chinese imports are crowding out Kenyan artisans from the domestic and East African markets. Like all good policy issues, there is an eco-system of competing interests. The scrap metal ban is probably the most controversial now.

Before the blanket ban, more than 1,083 tonnes of scrap metal was leaving Kenya each month for India, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. The trade has directly jeopardised Jubilee's one trillion infrastructural investment over the last ten years. Repair of vandalised or stolen guard-rails, streetlights and other road fixtures represents 10 per cent of the Sh 9 billion repairs being carried out by Kenya Roads Board. The story is very similar across the railway and electricity national infrastructure. These figures justify tighter regulation, but the blanket ban is causing economic havoc affecting both licensed and unlicensed traders.

Metalworkers can be found across all 47 counties. Jua Kali workers are growing fastest and are least supported. Increased investment by future county and national governments in decent workstations, raised jigs and other tools, boots, overalls, safety nets and social protection policies is critical for today’s workers and tomorrow’s retirees and might also reward incumbents with a second term.

While the face of the Metal Workers Union is female today, it is important to realise that this space is still very male dominated. For nearly thirty years before she became Secretary General Rose Omamo was one of only two women who worked alongside the 450 workers of Vehicle Assemblers Ltd of Mombasa. Women empowerment programmes are needed to break the bias here as well.

There are two lessons for future policymakers. Poor people do not protect modern infrastructural investments well. Secondly, extreme inequalities and impunity are costly.

A new approach is needed.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 27 March 2022.

One month after this article, the Trade Ministry moved to lift the blanket ban. We hope this analysis helped.

Other useful analyses can be found here


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