Beneath the shiny veneer of Madaraka Express is a tale of pain, anguish and broken dreams for a multitude of Kenyans who feel trapped on the trains.
Chinese nationals have created a small kingdom in which they run roughshod over Kenyan workers who say they are experiencing neo-colonialism, racism and blatant discrimination as the taxpayer foots the Sh30 million a day bill for the train.
Investigations by the Sunday Standard have found a huge contrast between what happens when in public glare and what really goes on beneath the shiny surface when the Chinese, masters of the SGR, retire to their apartments and restaurant.
Staff in the car depot or rolling stock department, among them freight technicians and inspectors, say they are grossly underpaid compared to their Chinese counterparts.
He said they are paid Sh37,000 a month, less than a quarter of what their Chinese counterparts earn for the same job.
“We are still referred to as trainees despite more than one year working in the field. The Chinese whom we work with in the same capacity only need two weeks of the same training and they are graduated to expert level,” he said.
Whenever Kenyans are fired for not meeting standards, they are replaced by Chinese employees waiting on the sidelines.
Poor Work conditions
The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) wears out quickly due to the nature of their job, but it takes a while to get them replaced.
“To carry out inspection you must crawl under the vehicle. Currently you have to inspect at least 7 trains for every shift with an average of 50 vehicles each. On each shift we have four groups. When you divide, you have to inspect 12 vehicles per train or an average of 104 vehicles per day,” he says adding that this ends up damaging the overalls.
“The problem now is that it’s the company’s policy to replace these PPEs after 2 years, and this means that some of us end up working in rugs,” he said.
Kenyan drivers sidelined
Our investigations have revealed that Kenyan drivers have taken charge of the 472-kilometre ride just once, during the project launch with President Uhuru Kenyatta as a passenger, when two female drivers, Alice Gitau and Concilia Owire, made the trip.
When the cameras and VIPs exited the scene, the Chinese drivers took back control. Kenyans have never again been allowed to navigate the passengers from either end of the train track.
“We just sit at the back and watch. There is no actual transfer of skills that is happening here,” an assistant locomotive driver who has been with the SGR for over a year now told the Sunday Standard.
The Chinese contractor has also opted to keep most of their equipment programmed in Chinese, making it impossible for Kenyans who do not read Chinese to progress beyond menial jobs, despite being employed as technicians, engineers and drivers.
There are also cases where the Chinese contractor has reported different figures on what an employee earns to the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) for tax purposes than what they actually earn.
One of the affected employees said they were later presented with two different P9 forms to ‘regularise’ the anomaly during the just concluded annual filing of returns.
“This lady received two P9s with different figures, one showed she earns more than what she actually takes home. Some employees who work at the Mombasa terminus have not been given payslips for the last one year. We only saw this anomaly after asking for the payslips,” another source who showed us the forms said.
Interviews with many of those working within the trains reveal an unwritten rule on the things that Kenyans can share with their Chinese masters. For a start, they do not share tables at their staff restaurant.
Though, it is not printed in black and white, Chinese staff would never sit on the same table with Kenyans and Kenyans are not expected to join their tables either.
An assistant locomotive driver says this divide runs to the staff vans as well where even if only one Chinese is on board, Kenyans will not use them when time for drop-offs come.
“You cannot board a van that drops us in the evening even if there’s only one Chinese on board. You will have to wait,” he says.