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Kenya outraged over parliament's $175K pay vote

Charles Nzioka, 38, stands outside Parliament trying to sell small food items to passers-by in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, July 2, 2010. Nzioka and many Kenyans are angry over a pay proposal by parliament to give members a pay package worth nearly $175,000, compensation decried as overly exorbitant in a country where day laborers earn $40 a month. The packages include pay for housing, entertainment expenses, transportation, a constituency allowance and an extraneous allowance. The politicians will even be paid for attending parliament meetings. Charles Nzioka, 38, stands outside Parliament trying to sell small food items to passers-by in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, July 2, 2010. Nzioka and many Kenyans are angry over a pay proposal by parliament to give members a pay package worth nearly $175,000, compensation decried as overly exorbitant in a country where day laborers earn $40 a month. The packages include pay for housing, entertainment expenses, transportation, a constituency allowance and an extraneous allowance. The politicians will even be paid for attending parliament meetings. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
By Jason Straziuso
Associated Press Writer / July 2, 2010

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NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenyans expressed outrage Friday after members of parliament this week recommended giving themselves a $175,000 annual pay package, compensation decried as overly exorbitant in a country where farm workers earn only $40 a month.

The legislators' compensation package includes pay for housing, entertainment expenses, transportation, a constituency allowance and an extraneous allowance. The politicians will even be paid for attending parliament meetings.

It outpaces what many European parliamentarians make, and would pay as much as the U.S. Congress.

But Kenya's economy can't match those of the United States or Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Nairobi residents live in slums with no running water. The monthly minimum wage for farm workers is $40. In Kenya's capital, the monthly minimum wage for laborers is $82.

Kenya's members of parliament, by contrast, could soon take home a monthly pay package worth nearly $15,000.

"They are so selfish. I could grab them by their necks and strangle them," said Muthoni Njathi, 29, who works in a small Nairobi restaurant where workers average about $125 a month. "There are so many people who go without food, so many people who walk kilometer after kilometer to go to work."

Kenya's 222 legislators currently make about $126,000. Parliament's vote on Wednesday came after a pay committee recommended the increases and that members pay taxes on their income for the first time. With the new taxes in place, the increase in members' take-home pay would be relatively small -- about $1,500 a month. But newspaper headlines and public reaction has been scathing.

"NOT WITH OUR TAX MONEY," screamed the front page of Friday's Daily Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper. The Standard newspaper headlined one story the "Greedy pack of MPs." Labor groups, the teachers union, and civil society groups have angrily denounced parliament's recommendation, which is scheduled to be voted on in final form next week.

"It's robbery without violence. It's the height of impunity. I don't think my language can be strong enough on how disgusted we are," said Wanjiru Gikonyo, the national coordinator of the Institute for Social Accountability. "We are not that greedy culture that they have become."

Gikonyo noted that the retirement packages in the new pay structure are so generous that people will likely now run for parliament just for the salary, and may have no interest in governing.

The office of the Finance Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, released a statement late Friday that appeared to quash the salary increase proposal, saying the national budget doesn't have money to increase salaries and that MPs have previously said the tax burden on Kenyans should be reduced.

Just outside parliament on Friday, street vendor Charles Nzioka tried to sell bottles of Coke and cakes. Like many day laborers here, Nzioka can only afford a small home for his wife and three children. He pays $30 a month in rent, a far cry from the nearly $2,000 housing allowance parliament recommended for its members.

Waving his arms in a fit of anger, Nzioka said parliament's pay was costing the nation dearly.

"It does not make sense, because you can see here we are struggling," said Nzioka, who often walks the 6 miles (10 kilometers) from his house to downtown Nairobi.

Kenyans noted ruefully that next week's vote on the pay hikes will take place a little less than a month before the nation votes on a new constitution, which if passed will take away lawmakers' ability to regulate their pay. Instead pay issues would be handled by an independent salary committee.

"I think the public is justified in being outraged," said Millie Odhimabo, a member of parliament who is appointed. But she said that since MPs will soon have to pay taxes for the first time, the changes will benefit the country in the long-run.

Odhimabo said that members of parliament often must spend their own salaries -- beyond the $1,600 "constituency allowance" they are paid -- to address the dire needs of the people they represent.

"When you wake up in the morning you probably receive around 50 to 100 phone calls from your constituents, and more than half of those phone calls are from someone who had a child die and has no money to bury the child, or someone else has a child in the hospital and has no money for medicine, another is for education," Odhimabo said.

"If you don't give out money nobody is going to elect you," she said.

But the Kenyans standing outside parliament on Friday complained that they can never successfully reach their representatives, and only see them once every five years, during the campaign period.

"Yeah, we're angry. Life is really hard compared to their lives," said Joe Kirui, 37, who makes $63 a month as a security guard in the Rift Valley. "You get your salary at the end of the month and in one week it's gone."

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