It's been all bad news for journalists in Kenya as media houses cut numbers.

Worrying trends in media restructuring

Last week’s news of the laying off of scores of journalists by Royal Media Services (RMS) was extremely unsettling to me, to say the least. It is dismaying to hear yet another media house being forced to send dozens of its staff home. This coming barely 6 months after Nation Media Group shut down its Kiswahili TV and radio stations.

While I concede that it is every media organisation’s right to restructure its operations in order to keep its business afloat, the latest restructuring undertaken by RMS raises, in my view, heightened concern over how local media houses are managing their human resource, which is at the core of any media organisation. After all, there has to be a human interface to all the technology that is deployed in the process of news gathering.

Having experienced the painful agony of two “restructuring exercises” myself, I find it even more heart rending to learn that some of the journalists who were fired were recruited barely six months ago. What justification can RMS provide for letting go of young journalists who have barely cut their teeth in the profession?

What reasoning can the management of RMS offer for hiring then firing promising young and local talent poached not too long ago from international media houses?

It just doesn’t make HR sense to lay off someone in this manner. This amounts to killing young careers unjustifiably. And I’m afraid to say it is such deeds that will, in the long run, make journalism as a career unattractive in Kenya. After all, why work under fear?

It is my considered view that media houses such as RMS are setting a wrong precedent, nay, setting a new low in the area of HR management. While I expect those affected to receive their terminal dues as prescribed by the law, I think it’s about time the law governing redundancy was reviewed to protect staffers who have barely served a year in employment at their place of work from the restructuring axe. An employee should serve at least two years before being served with a letter of redundancy. Declaring an employee who has served less than two years redundant speaks of insensitivity, if not malice to the extreme.

Redundancy should be last resort

Considering the high rate of unemployment in Kenya, I also think employers should be compelled to give their staff the option of taking a temporary pay cut during lean times. Declaring mass redundancies should be an option of last resort that must be sufficiently justified with facts and figures. However capitalistic Kenya is, the pursuit of profit must not exact an inordinate toll on employees.

Productivity has also become a buzzword among employers in Kenya today, especially when justifying a restructuring move. When trade unions push for pay increases, employers almost always flash the productivity card. But I’m not too sure employers have been able to define what productivity means. I understand there’s a state corporation by the name “The Productivity Centre of Kenya”. I sincerely don’t know what it does. The question of productivity needs answers urgently, now more than ever before.

I say so because more often than not, it is never quite clear which criteria a media organization uses to declare a position or staff member redundant. It is commonplace to see situations in which a staff member is declared redundant only for his or her position to be replaced by someone else. Is that the new definition of redundancy or did the meaning of redundancy change somewhere along the way?

And if low productivity is to be used as a criterion for redundancy, then there should be sufficient proof to back that up. Evidence such as results of annual or semi-annual performance evaluations against mutually agreed upon performance benchmarks.

And speaking of trade unions, I wonder what became of the Kenya Union of Journalists? Does it really represent the labour rights of all journalists in Kenya? How many journalists does it represent, especially under the current constitutional dispensation that gives every worker the right to form, join or participate in the activities and programmes of a trade union. It’s high time media organisations – especially those in broadcast industry – desisted from classifying reporters as part of management as a means of barring them from joining a trade union.

Media business in Kenya is not what it used to be before the onset of digital migration in early 2014.

The ice is melting for media houses that once held sway. Revenues are spreading thin as more and more players enter the scene, particularly in as far as electronic media goes.

However, the need to stay profitable must be tempered with humanity. Journalism is one of the very few professions I know that focuses squarely on the human person. No story is complete without a human face. That human face is what needs to be seen in the deeds and decisions of media owners and managers. I trust that those charged with the responsibility of passing laws for the just government of all men are listening too.

The writer is a former journalist at Royal Media Services.

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