Social dialogue promotes decent work in Kenya’s digital economy

In a first-of-its-kind national social dialogue for Kenya on an inclusive digital transformation, ILO, government, social partners and the voices of key sector stakeholders convened to promote a digital transformation that is more productive and inclusive of all.

News | 14 April 2023
Nairobi KENYA (ILO News) - The International Labour Organization (ILO), through the Partnership for improving prospects for forcibly displaced persons and host communities (PROSPECTS) programme, held the first national social dialogue to promote decent work for all in the digital economy in Kenya on 12 April 2023.  Co-organized with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Digital Economy, the social dialogue convened, Federation of Kenya Employers and Central Organization of Trade Unions.

Caroline Njuki, Chief Technical Advisor for the ILO in Kenya
The digital economy in Kenya has emerged as one of the fastest-growing sectors in Kenya, driven by advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) and an increased access to internet connectivity. Already by the end of 2022, there were about 1.9 million people working in digital and digitally enabled jobs, up from 638,000 in 2019 (MCF-KEPSA report 2022). The World Bank reports that the digital economy in Kenya is expected to grow to $23 billion by 2025, thereby creating thousands of new jobs.

“When we talk about the future of work, technology is a defining feature,” said Caroline Njuki, ILO PROSPECTS Kenya, pointing to how digital technologies are transforming economies and how these platforms have the potential to generate decent work in diverse forms of employment when backed by the necessary policy and regulatory frameworks and incentives. “These developments present opportunities for improving access to the technologies and ensuring that workers possess the education and skills to secure the jobs and livelihood opportunities that the digital economy and the platform economy can offer,” Njuki added. She also spoke of today’s dialogue as the first for Kenya that, different from the many other dialogues and fora on the digital economy at large taking place in the country, specifically aims at discussing inclusive digital transformations.

Social dialogue as an enabler of decent work in the digital economy

Enhanced social dialogue can play a central role in addressing the innovation potential of the digital economy, and in particular, the online platform economy. What’s more, it can help tackle the challenges associated with governance, working conditions and labour market access for all, including for traditionally unserved groups, such as refugees.

With this aim in mind, today’s national dialogue offered a convening space to find common ground and stimulate social dialogue on how to drive a digital transformation that is inclusive, tapping into existing opportunities, managing policy trade-offs and minimizing risks specific to Kenya’s policy enabling environment and socioeconomic realities.

Speaking to the importance of collective bargaining and the organizing of workers was Frida Mwangi, Board Secretary, Online Professional Workers Association of Kenya. “As the Online Professional Workers Association, we want to build and strengthen a union that gives the workers a voice in decision-making processes and identify skill gaps and build capacity of digital workers in digital and entrepreneurial skills,” Mwangi said. Ensuring that marginalized groups have access to training, jobs and leadership positions is also central, she added, pointing to how the Online Professional Workers Association of Kenya hopes that conversations as today’s will add to the policy momentum and the political will towards the creation of enabling policies or standard laws that protect workers’ rights. Further citing today’s social dialogue event, Mwangi appreciated the ILO as enabling a much-needed space for the voices of online workers to be heard and validated.

Leveraging ICTs for a future of digitally enabled work and livelihoods

With Kenya embracing the ICT sector, the adoption of the Digital Economy Blueprint of 2019 has provided a framework to leverage digital government, digital business, infrastructure, innovation-driven entrepreneurship, and digital skills and values, in line with the goals set out in the Kenya Vision 2030.

“We need to work together as social partners to ensure that there is coordination between skilling policy and technological transformation,” said Jacqueline Mugo, Executive Director, Federation of Kenya Employers, shedding light on the ways that sector and industry representatives can work with training institutions and policy makers to ensure that no one is left behind. Speaking of an opportune moment to capitalize on this shared aim, Mugo spoke of a digital transformation in Kenya that she hopes the Federation of Kenya Employers, together with investors, policy makers and workers organizations can come together, rising to the occasion “with boldness, resolute and open mind transform Kenya into a Silicon Savanna full of wealth and jobs.”

Political will to invest in the potential for decent work in the digital economy

With the State Department of ICT and Digital Economy and the State Department of Labour and Skills Development having set up an inter-ministerial team to engage with key sector stakeholders, there is political will to continue working together to ensure that digitally enabled jobs for Kenyans and for underserved populations, including refugees, are decent and dignified and that their rights at work are protected.

“Current Kenya labour laws do not provide for a regulatory framework on digital jobs, thus most workers in the digital space remain vulnerable to exploitation,” explained Geoffrey Kaituko, Principal Secretary with the State Department of Labour and Skills Development. He spoke of today’s consultations and discussions as an opportunity to direct attention towards establishing a formal and integrated framework to support growth of the digital economy, including through the identification and formal recognition of online or digitally enabled jobs, promoting employment among youth, persons with disabilities and other underserved groups and promoting social protection and welfare of employees working in the digital economy.

Eng John Tanui, Principal Secretary, State Department for Digital Economy echoed the need for consistent dialogue with the relevant partners and assured an active contribution from the department in strengthening policy frameworks.

The way forward: supporting the expansion and the inclusiveness of the digital economy

Addressing challenges in the uptake of digital technology and the expansion of a digital economy is key to ensure growth in a way that generates equity in access to skills and decent work opportunities for all.
Policies and frameworks, coupled with people-centered investments, should work coherently among one another to support its expansion and ensure that it is accessible to all. Building a robust community of digital workers is possible, but with this expansion, efforts to guarantee and facilitate collective bargaining and sharing and peer support are also central. This would ensure that a growing digital economy also leads in parallel to improved working conditions and better outcomes for web-based and platform workers.
“To tackle the challenges faced in the digital economy or digital jobs, it is important to thoroughly examine and address relevant issues,” Njuki said. Indeed, the recurring challenges shall inform further opportunities for continued dialogue on the road to establishing a community of practice to improve the quality of digital skills. This community of practice, Njuki added, can serve as a valuable tool for continuing the conversation and advancing knowledge sharing and collaboration among key sector stakeholders, providing in turn a space for ongoing dialogue, learning and problem solving, all of which help drive progress towards ensuring an inclusive digital transformation for all.