Kenyan youth in digital work call on Ruto to address rights of tech workers

A section of Kenyan youth groups under the banner- Project Ether, want President William Ruto to utilise his visit to the USA to address pertinent issues affecting youth employed by major American tech corporations.

With the crux of the discussions between President Ruto and USA’s President Joe Biden being trade, investment and technological innovation; areas that directly impact the lives of Kenyan youth engaged in the digital economy, the youth want Dr Ruto to address issues of exploitation and violation of human rights and workers’ rights in the digital workforce.

This is especially true for the thousands of Kenyan youth working for American tech giants like Facebook, Scale AI, Open AI and others via business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in Kenya.

Rather than just focusing on Kenyans getting any job, the youth want the president to utilise relationship to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Kenya and the USA to carve pathways for meaningful participation in economic matters.

On several occasions, the President has made promises to generate one million jobs annually for the next 10 years in his ambitious bid to bridge the widening gap between qualified talent and available employment opportunities through digital jobs. He has even made public endorsements to some of the companies that bring digital jobs to Kenya.

“While we are encouraged by your public commitments and declarations, including most recently on Labour Day, to ensure your administration prioritises IT training to drive our digital economy, we are deeply concerned that the Kenyan government may be unaware of the violations of human and workers’ rights by some of the US-based Big Tech companies and their local partners,” the youth said.

This, they said is the backdrop of a class action suit by content moderators against one of the tech companies and the local business outsourced by the tech giant in Kenya.

The latest report by Siasa Place, a youth-led NGO in Nairobi dubbed Taptengelei, Unemployment and Digital Jobs, Youth Perspectives on the Changing Nature of Work” published in April 2024, revealed how US companies and their local partners undermine local Kenyan labour laws including forbidding workers to unionise.

“We wish to inform you (President Ruto) that all these inhumane working conditions, discrimination, mental health issues, lack of social safety nets, unusual pay for equal work, as well as contracting malpractices, amount to modern-day slavery,” the youth groups said.

As such, they want President Ruto to engage Big Tech workers, including outsourced workers during any US-Kenya trade-related negotiations and ensure that the US-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) agreements include strong mechanisms to prevent union busting by US companies in Kenya.

“Kenya has high levels of educated unemployed and the tech boom has created much-needed new jobs here, particularly for young people, who are the majority of digital workers. We need these jobs but not jobs at any cost,” they said.

The youth also echoed the sentiments of Kenyan digital workers who spoke of the toll exacted by their work – a toll paid not only in terms of meagre wages but also in sacrifices of health and well-being.

In support of these youth, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said it is hypocritical for the US companies to disregard Kenya’s sovereignty and not abide by its laws and regulations on workers’ rights.

“When US companies do not respect the sovereignty of the Kenyan people and our supreme law— the 2010 constitution—that demonstrates hypocrisy and double standards,” he said.

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