Seafarers have been ordered to hold fresh elections almost two years after they elected the current leadership. This is after the Employment and Labour Relations court sitting in Mombasa declared the elections held on April 14, 2021 null and void.
The court ruled that Seafarers Union of Kenya (SUK) conducted the polls without forming an elections board as required by law.
SUK and Kenya Maritime Authority have lately been submerged into a sea of scrutiny following the ongoing mass recruitment of Kenyans to work on cruise ships and other vessels around the world.
The ruling was delivered on February 2, this year, forcing the union leadership under Secretary General Stephen Ojiambo Owaki to go back to the drawing board.
Mr Owaki allegedly issued a letter that also served as a notice calling for the union elections without convening the union annual conference of members to set up the elections board to conduct the polls.
In her ruling, Justice Agnes Kitiku Nzei directed that the union establish the elections board within 90 days of the judgement in accordance with its union constitution and hold polls in 60 days thereafter.
The judge noted that although the General Secretary may have had capacity to convene an annual conference of the union under article 4: 3 (iii) of the union constitution, he had no authority to lawfully call for and receive names or nominations of those interested in vying for positions.
"That is the province of the elections board pursuant to article 6 (2) of the 1st respondent (SUK) constitution. To that extent, the 2nd respondent's (General Secretary) letter dated 18th March 2021 was an illegality. I so find and hold," ruled Ms Nzei.
Deputy General Secretary Atie Swaleh Ramadhan and five other union members had moved to court challenging Mr Owaki's decision to call for the elections without an elections board in place.
According to court papers, the union leadership held an executive board meeting on March 30, 2021 which agreed to call for a conference of members to establish the elections board.
However, on March 18, 2021, Mr Owaki allegedly wrote a letter serving as a notice for elections. The letter also required that those seeking to be elected to take their nomination forms to him.
The petitioners told the court that the union general secretary had turned himself to be a referee in the election held at the Missions to Seafarers centre in Mombasa county.
The elections board is supposed to organize and oversee elections at all levels of the union. Under the union constitution, the elections board receives nominations for various positions from the conference and vets them ahead of the polls.
It determines who are validly nominated and disseminate the information, and to generally organize and conduct the elections and announce the results.
The elections board processes disputes and present its report with recommendations to the conference indicating who has been elected in the relevant positions.
The petitioners had sought a declaration that the letter by the general secretary purporting to be an election notice did not comply with the union constitution and therefore unlawful.
They also sought a declaration that the election held on April 14, 2021 following the General Secretary's letter of March 18, 2021 was null and void and that the union be ordered to hold a conference of its members and establish an elections board within 30 days of judgment.
The registrar of trade unions who is cited as the third respondent in the petition had said that the union constitution establishes an elections board and its mandate.
The registrar further pleaded that the union elections must be within five years and must adhere to statutory provisions failing which they would be in contravention of section 34 (2) (b) of the Labour Relations Act, 2007.
One of the petitioners Mr Mwalimu Chii Hamisi testified that the notice issued by Mr Owaki on March 18, 2021 required that those seeking to be elected take forms to him, arrogating himself the role of a referee.
Hamisi had stated that the union's executive board had deliberated and agreed that the notice be withdrawn but the general secretary never did so.
He noted that the right procedure would have been for the general secretary to call the board on receiving the notice from the registrar of trade unions (asking SUK to hold its elections) which would then have called the union members to set up an elections board.
Hamisi testified that the elections were held on April 14, 2021 on the basis of the unlawful notice sent out by Mr Owaki and urged the court to nullify it to pave way for proper elections.
He further testified that he and his co-petitioners were elected in 2016 at a time when there was no elections board, and that the registrar of trade unions assisted in holding the elections.
It was noted that the elections board can only be constituted by a conference of all the union members. The board comprising of nine members is formed during the union's annual conference.