History of Industrial Relations in Kenya

What follows is brief discussion of the Kenyan industrial relation scene from a historical perspective.

Industrial relations in the 1900’s and 1960’s

Introduction of capitalism in Kenya through British colonialism was the genesis of the present day employer-employee relations in Kenya. As early as the 1900’s trade unionism in Kenya has began making itself felt within the then major employer organisation the Kenya- Uganda Railway.

By 1939, the total number of employees in Nairobi then represented about 1% of the potential labour force in the country. The total labour force was at about 5%. However, this tinny % of wage employees was to constitute a significant force for the employers to reckon with and in 1947, the first major worker – employer confrontation took place. The first major trade union-African workers federation formed that same year was responsible for this strike in Mombasa.

This strike was the beginning of militancy that was to continue well into the emergency period starting In October 1952. The perceived link between Mau Mau and Trade unionism by the colonial government helping slacken Union activity. The defeat of the armed struggle saw the revival of unionism and by 1958, among others, the following unions had been registered; Kenya Shoe and Leather Workers Union, Kenya Engineering Workers Union, Kenya Timber and Furniture Workers Union, Kenya Electrical Trade Workers Union, Tobacco Brewing and Bottling Workers Union, Kenya Motor Engineering and Allied Workers Union and Kenya Quarry and Mine Workers Union.

The issue of recognition of the unions was another matter all together. For instance, the Kenya Engineering Workers Union was only recognized on 10th June 1960. Recognition by the employer organisation was and still is, therefore, an important step in the process of establishing formal union-employer remuneration negotiation channels.

It is significant that in the Agricultural sector, the trade union movement made itself felt fairly late. It is only in 1959 that the first agricultural workers union sisal and coffee plantations Workers Union was formed. This was followed by Tea Plantation Workers Union, General Agricultural Workers Union, Kenya Union of sugar plantation Workers union all coming in 1960. These appeared in the plantations near Nairobi, possibly due to pressure and influence from the urban movements.

Industrial Relations Development, 1960’s-1970’s

By the 1960’s the industrial relations scene in Kenya had become dominated by foreign – owned commercial and industrial organisations. The employers association (later renamed federation of Kenya employers) the ACIE (Association of Commercial and Industrial Employers) felt the need for closely monitoring the development of amicable industrial relations.

In 1962, the industrial relations charter was signed by the three major actors in Kenyan IR scene; the Kenya Government, Federation of Kenya Employers and the Kenya Federation of Labour. The charter was to stem the tide of strikes that had begun in 1961. It was to avoid such strikes that the charter pointed out that: –

“It is in the National interest for the Government, Management and workers to recognize that consultation and cooperation on a basic of mutual understanding render an essential contribution to the efficiency and productivity of an undertaking and that progress can only be made on a foundation of goods terms and conditions of employment which include security of service and income, also the improvement of workers conditions of service.”

The cause of these strikes were as varied as the various employer organisation, but they all shared the usual grievances; poor supervision, racial connotation in access to higher status positions and remuneration.

Strikes continued to be occasioned even after the charter more often, employers failed to meet some of their promised obligations and the new African government was more sympathetic to the employers cause than to that of the workers, who were being accused of engaging in counterproductive practices.

Workers now felt betrayed by their leaders who had become national political figures, and soon, the Kenya Federation of labour found itself facing stiff rivalry from the Kenya African Workers Congress, which claimed to be the real champion of the workers cause.

The government swiftly stepped in to avoid conformations. The end result was the formation of C.O.T.U (Central Organisation of Trade Union), which though an amalgamation of the two warring factions took more of the nature of Kenya Federation of Labour in its policies. The government Employer alliance had now won a major battle against workers.

Through time, the trade union movement in Kenya has continued to be subjected to server restrictions by the government. The industrial court had been seen as an effective instrument for meeting out justice. However government activities like through the issuance of wage guideline has now cast doubts to the courts independence.

The Trade Disputes Act, 1965, apart from establishing the Industrial Court introduced into the Kenyan industrial relations system, complicated procedures before a strike can take place. The Act and its rules and procedural regulations have tended to minimize the freedom of the workers in resorting to a strike as a last resort.

The trade union movement though strong in numbers is still weak in terms of influencing key managerial decisions. The weakness of trade unionism is vindicated by the fact that:

  • Unions do not provide any form of assistance to their members in the event they set victimized due to a strike
  • Except far a few unions, membership recruitment is done by the organizing secretaries and shop-stewards
  • Relatively few unions after any service other than bargaining and grievance handling to the members.
  • Most unions are one-man shows with the general secretary doing all the bargaining, handling all major grievances, resolving problems in the branches and so on.

These Union weaknesses are contrasted with the powerful position of the employers. The FKE provides all sorts of assistance to its employer associations, has great financial strength and always counts on government support in the event of a strike. The FKE has its own economics advisers, lawyers and IR experts, who boost the organisations, position vis-à-vis that of the workers on the bargaining table.

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