Co-Authored by Clifford Odhiambo
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan once famously said —”It is my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.” The right to health is now universally recognized as an integral part of human rights. In Kenya, the right to health has been categorized as a socioeconomic right that has its footing in Article 43 of the Constitution which provides that: “Every person has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services…”
Health and medical care are intrinsically linked; although one never needs medical care when one is healthy, good health, once lost, is restored through good medical care. In what way therefore does the right to medical care play out in the employment context? Do employers have the duty to guarantee to their employees the right to health as enshrined in the Constitution? Does the Employment Act cast any obligation upon employers to ensure (or try their best to ensure) the good health of their employees?
The Employment Act on the Right to Health
Part V of the Employment Act lists all the duties of employers in relation to contracts of employment. Of particular note in the context of the health is the employer’s duty to provide medical attention, prescribed under section 34 of the Employment Act. The duties are set out as follows:
(1) An employer shall ensure the provision sufficient and of proper medicine for his employees during illness and if possible, medical attendance during serious illness.
(2) An employer shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that he is notified of the illness of an employee as soon as reasonably practicable after the first occurrence of the illness.
(3) It shall be a defence to a prosecution for an offence under subsection (1) if the employer shows that he did not know that the employee was ill and that he took all reasonable steps to ensure that the illness was brought to his notice or that it would have been unreasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, to have required him to know that the employee was ill.
The Court’s interpretation of section 34 of the Employment Act
The Employment and Labour Relations Court is a specialist Court set up under Article 162 of the Constitution to hear and determine matters pertaining to employment and labour relations. While it is the duty of Parliament to enact and pass legislation, the duty of interpreting the law is vested in the Courts.
The Employment and Labour Relations Court was recently called upon to interpret section 34 of the Act in the case of Eddie Mutegi Njora v Mega Microfinance Co. Ltd  eKLR.
- Brief facts of the case
On 26th July 2008 the Claimant was employed as an Administrative Officer with the Respondent but a written contract of employment was only issued to him on 22nd February 2011 and was backdated to 26th July 2008. The Claimant was also simultaneously engaged with Mega Initiative Welfare Society which was a sister entity to the Respondent company. The terms of the Claimant’s contract were that he would be paid Kshs. 40,000.00 per month as his salary; be entitled to 30 days leave per year; and an in-patient medical cover. The contract of employment was not issued immediately as is required by law and as a result the Claimant did not know his terms and conditions of work. On 27th June 2011 the respondent issued the Claimant with a letter notifying him that his contract of service would end on 31st July 2011. Upon termination of contract, the Respondent filed suit seeking:-
- a) Accrued leave;
- b) 3 years’ service pay
- c) Unpaid medical cover; and
- e) Compensation for not being issued with an employment contract
- Decision of the Court
Upon hearing the case, the Court pronounced itself as follows with regard to employer’s duty under section 34 of the Act:-Where an employer provides a medical cover, such a cover is to ensure the employer has taken a progressive step to ensure all employees are covered in terms of medical care and attention at all times. Where an employer has not provided such a medical cover, once an employee is unwell, such information should be brought to the attention of the employer as soon as it is reasonably practical.
The employer then has a duty to address the matter as appropriate where such sickness has been brought to their attention. The evidence by the Claimant is that he remained without a medical cover from March to July 2011 and therefore should be compensated for lack of such a medical cover.
The Claimant however failed to submit any evidence of sickness and need for medical attention that was brought to the attention of the Respondent and that the Respondent failed to address such a situation or that the Claimant was forced to incur medical bills and the respondent failed to reimburse. The duty here is for the respondent to ensure the provision sufficient and of proper medicine for his employees during illness and if possible, medical attendance during serious illness as under section 34(1) of the Employment Act.
The Court, in its application of section 34 of the Employment Act, adopted a literal approach and did not cast any greater burden upon employers to provide medical care for employees than what the Act expressly provides for.
There was no suggestion by the Court that an employer must obtain medical cover or insurance for employees but the Court did acknowledge that an employer that elects to do so (provide medical cover) is taking progressive steps towards ensuring its employees have the necessary medical care and attention at all times.
The Court however did confirm that the employer has a duty to provide proper medicine to its employees during illness, and medical attention during serious illness. Whilst the Court found that the employer has a duty to know of any illness affecting an employee, there is an equal duty owed by employees to inform the employer of the same.