Every worker or employer needs to know a bit of labour law

Every worker or employer needs to know a bit of labour law

By Dr Tom Odhiambo 

We live in difficult economic times. Wages are rising slower than the prices of goods and services. Families are being forced to rejig their budgets. Salaried workers and the self-employed are complaining about a rapidly rising cost of living. The cost of living is directly linked to the cost of production of goods and services. The price of a loaf of bread includes the cost of farming, what is charged to transport raw products from the farm to the factory, the cost of making the loaf, the tax that the government charges, the transport from the factory to the shop and the markup that the seller adds to the wholesale price. In all these processes is human labor. 

When manufacturers plan to reduce their cost of production, they often reduce the pay for the workers or lay some of them off. In some cases employers negotiate with workers to accept reduced pay. Yet the same workers will continue to pay higher prices for goods and services. In such cases disputes often happen between employers and employees. Workers may refuse to accept a pay cut. They could refuse to be laid off. Or they might demand to be paid for the duration of their contract that they would lose when they are sacked. The employers can also simply declare some workers redundant without referring to them or their union at all. In many cases these disputes arise between individuals and groups with little or no knowledge of labour laws at all. 

This is when in many cases the representatives of the workers, if they are organized under a union, call for a negotiation with the employers, demand an arbitration, call a strike – suspension of the workers’ labor – or simply go to the court to seek to compel the employer to negotiate with them. In some cases these disputes are quickly resolved, through arbitration or one side caving in to the demands of the other side. In other cases the dispute can drag on for long, leading to the workers losing their income and the employers losing labor and production. 

Labour disputes are to be expected anywhere where there is an employer-employee relationship. This is why Justice Nzioka wa Makau’s book, Labour Law & Industrial Relations in Kenya (2021) is worth reading and keeping. It is worth reading, for workers in Kenya who are generally ignorant about labour relations until a dispute arises, just as it is for any layperson who is interested in labour law and industrial relations in Kenya. This is a book that also sets a precedent for having been written by a sitting judge. 

What Justice Makau does in Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Kenya is to introduce the reader to the history of labour laws in Kenya. Where did Kenya get its current labour laws? Why is there a need to have labour laws? What is the relationship between trade unions, employers, employees and the government? Why does the government, which is an employer too, play a role in resolving disputes between private employers and their employees? What rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and organizations such as the International Labour organization and how and why should the government enforce the recognition of these rights by employers? Why, for instance, is there a Ministry of Labour? 

These and several other questions that may arise on the topic of labor and industrial relations in Kenya are posed and addressed in the most accessible language. What makes this book stand out is the simplicity of the discussions on several topics on labour law in Kenya. Generally, a book of this nature tends to drag the reader through jargon and incomprehensible terms. Writers of books on law often make their texts inaccessible by unnecessary reference to Latin terms, which they then explain in English or even given their equivalent. 

Justice Makau makes Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Kenya easy to understand by illustrating an idea that he is discussing with an example of a court case on the topic. These cases aren’t just for reference by practicing lawyers or students of law; they are also important for labour officers, trade unionists, employers or even employees who might one day be caught up in a situation similar to the one in the case in reference. 

What Justice Makau has done is to challenge his fellow judges or magistrates and lawyers to reflect and write on the law and other legal matters in a style and language that people who ordinarily have little to do with the law can understand. In fact, the challenge should potentially go beyond the simplification of the generally inaccessible legalese to ‘localizing’ or Africanizing legal language. How can laws in an African country carry the ethos and culture of the people among whom it is practiced? How can the law be rendered in a language that is comprehensible to the majority of the people that it affects? 

The discussion on the labour law in Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Kenya by Justice Makau almost attempts this difficult task.  (

— The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke 

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