Before independence, the colonial government was the major obstacle to the growth of Kenya’s labour movement. Now it is facing what could be its biggest ever challenge: the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions (Cotu) was established in 1965, two years after independence from Britain. Until then, British rulers had often sided with employers to thwart organised labour. Despite early difficulties, Cotu managed to expand its membership to 400,000 in the late 1980s. By 2010, this figure had grown to 2m, making Cotu the sole voice representing Kenya’s workers and a powerful role-player in negotiations touching on welfare.
But its achievements have made it a thorn in the government’s side. In 2005 Cotu successfully rallied workers against a draft constitution it opposed for not making the industrial court superior to the high court and not recognising Labour Day as a national holiday. Five years later, a new constitution was passed that includes these demands.
Cotu also led a series of industrial actions that led to massive salary adjustments in the civil service, much to the chagrin of government. Teachers’ salaries, for instance, rose 152% between 1997 and 2013 after sustained pressure by the federation.
Those glory days may be gone. Now Cotu is swirling in allegations of murder, embezzlement and fraud. These appear to be a concerted government attempt to undermine the federation’s influence.
It all began with the formation of the Trade Union Congress-Kenya (TUC-Kenya) in November 2013, just eight months after Mr Kenyatta’s March election. Labour Minister Kazungu Kambi attended the launch event while Devolution Minister Anne Waiguru and Education Minister Jacob Kaimenyi appeared at various TUC-Kenya occasions in caps and Tshirts bearing the new movement’s logo.
Mr Kambi has denied that government is attempting to weaken Cotu. But he forced Cotu secretary-general, Francis Atwoli, off the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) board in July 2014, alleging the Cotu boss had presided over a 5 billion Kenyan shilling ($52.5m) irregular land deal in Nairobi that was to be funded by the NSSF, a statutory pension fund for private and civil service employees.
In September 2014, the Labour Relations and Employment Court reinstated Mr Atwoli but the government moved with speed to challenge the ruling at the appeals court. The matter is pending while Mr Atwoli continues serving on the NSSF board.
Fourteen of Cotu’s affiliates have jumped ship to TUC-Kenya, including the Kenya National Union of Teachers, the Union of Kenya Civil Servants, the Universities Academic Staff Union, the Universities Non-Teaching Staff Union and the Kenya Universities Staff Union, leaving Cotu with just 30 affiliates without financial power.
The two union federations have been fighting for representation in lucrative parastatals such as the NSSF, National Hospital Insurance Fund, Retirement Benefits Authority and Salaries and Remuneration Commission. These seats have historically been the preserve of Cotu nominees.
The state has also become involved in disputes within Cotu. Mr Atwoli fired his deputy, George Muchai, on October 3rd last year for working with the government against Cotu’s interests.
But on October 22nd, Elizabeth Gicheha, the registrar of trade unions, overruled this dismissal and had him reinstated. She claimed Mr Muchai was denied “his constitutional right” to be heard before he was fired. According to insiders, the Cotu leadership considered Mr Muchai a government stooge.
Although Mr Atwoli did not appeal against Mr Muchai’s reinstatement, he faulted the ruling and vowed to have the board suspend Mr Muchai a second time. Mr Muchai, however, did not officially resume his duties at Cotu due to their bitter relationship.
Cotu, which celebrated its golden jubilee on May 1st this year, is now a shadow of its former strength, serving only private-sector workers.
Labour experts say the emergence of another labour federation is not only worrisome for Cotu, but also for other organised workers. “Today’s labour movement in Kenya is lukewarm,” said lawyer Gertrude Angote. She believes the formation of TUC-Kenya has made labour weak and vulnerable to government manipulation.
Political analyst Francis Opar said the Kenyatta regime is interested in having union leadership that will not only prevent labour unrest, but also lobby for him before the 2017 general election.
Mr Kenyatta’s allies believe Mr Atwoli and other Cotu leaders support Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy.
“A deliberate move to woo unions was seen in 2002 when teachers, through the Kenya National Union of Teachers, reached an agreement with the opposition National Rainbow Coalition,” Mr Opar said. “This boosted the coalition’s results in that year’s polls.”
But Charles Mukhwaya, TUC-Kenya’s deputy secretary-general, insists the formation of the new union federation was innocent. He says it came about after realising that most trade unions within the public service sector, either by design or default, were not Cotu affiliates.
Wilson Sossion, Kenya National Union of Teachers’ secretary-general, who doubles as TUC-Kenya’s secretary-general, said some unions left Cotu because it “revolves around one personality and lacks the vision and focus for professional enhancement of those it represents”.
Mr Atwoli, meanwhile, said several attempts have been made to run him out of office and ruin the federation. Two days after his re-instatement and still smarting from his firing, Mr Muchai claimed that his boss had pocketed 7m Kenyan shillings ($73,357) after Cotu sold land in the coastal city of Mombasa. He asked the Industrial Court to freeze four Cotu bank accounts because of this alleged financial impropriety.
But the case was cut short by Mr Muchai’s murder in Nairobi on February 7th this year.
Immediately, the government linked Mr Atwoli to the crime. Mr Kambi, the labour minister, called for Mr Atwoli’s arrest, claiming the Cotu boss had masterminded the killing. Police arrested seven suspects a week later, but no links have been established between them and Mr Atwoli or Cotu. Mr Atwoli and five Cotu officials sued Mr Kambi, also in February, for his alleged defamatory statement. The case is pending.
Some analysts, such as Owigo Meja, claim the government is using both Cotu and TUC-Kenya as pawns, playing them against each other to weaken labour’s bargaining power. Mr Meja, who is also a former shop steward, concedes that Cotu may not have adequately addressed workers’ issues, but claims that TUC Kenya cannot fare any better against Mr Kenyatta’s government.
As Cotu and TUC-Kenya dig in for the battle for members, the only certainty is that Mr Kenyatta’s administration is an interested party and not an ally of the former.
With such a powerful friend, TUC-Kenya is likely to emerge victorious. Cotu can still triumph if it manages to retain the goodwill of Kenya’s workers, which it has enjoyed for many decades. But the road ahead will not be easy.
Omondi Oloo, a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, has reported and written for Kenyarsquo;s Nation Media Group and the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, US.