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Inside a 25-year journey fight by train drivers with Kenya Railways

By Macharia Kamau | December 1st 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Twenty-two years ago, Industrial Court Judge Charles Chemmuttut ruled in favour of a pay rise for Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) train drivers.

The ruling was meant to radically improve the living standards of the locomotive drivers. Besides the award, the court also instructed KRC, as it was known then, to consider improving the poor working conditions for its staff.

The 1998 ruling would have made the drivers richer and given them more disposable income. They had downed their tools in 1994 and filed the case in 1995.

The court awarded workers a 25 per cent pay hike in the 1998 ruling, and ordered the formation of a special scheme of service. This meant that KRC would have to take into consideration their working conditions while remunerating them.

The court judgement could potentially increase the drivers’ pay 10-fold from an average pay of Sh11,000 to Sh140,000, according to tabulations that they had done then and factored the allowances they were meant to get.

Read More

Two decades ago, a judge awarded a group of highly trained locomotive operators a 25pc salary hike. But their hopes of a windfall turned into a mirage, until a ruling last week upheld the 1998 award. However, it won’t count for many of these drivers. [Standard]

Deflated hopes

But to the contrary, the ruling instead set them up for a two-decades-long fight with the corporation in pursuit of the court award. The windfall offered by the ruling became a mirage.

To make matters worse, the optimism of a high-flying career as a locomotive driver with the parastatal that was delivered by the ruling was soon deflated.

By design or default, KRC embarked on a retrenchment programme soon after the ruling in 1998, and among the first on the chopping board were some of the staff most vocal in pushing for a pay rise.

Besides, a majority of the other workers would leave the corporation by 2003 following subsequent phases of the retrenchment plan, while some were offloaded on disciplinary grounds.

Last week, 22 years later, the courts upheld the earlier landmark ruling, tasking Kenya Railways to pay up.

But it comes too late for a number of these locomotive drivers, most of whom died poor and frustrated.

More than half of them will not benefit from the Industrial Court’s new ruling upholding the earlier one and instructing Kenya Railways to pay the workers by December 16. Because the dead do not get paid. Perhaps it will benefit their next of kin, if they can be found.

The surviving drivers filed a case in 2003 seeking to have KRC compelled to pay what the court awarded in 1998. The court ruled in their favour and directed Kenya Railways to pay their salary arrears.

The corporation appealed against the case. The case would drag on and a ruling was made in 2009, again in favour of the drivers. They have since then been in and out of court trying to compel KRC to honour the Industrial Court award of 1998.

In early November this year, the Employment and Labour Relations Court ordered KRC to pay salary arrears owed to its former train drivers.

The court gave the corporation until December 16 to honour the payment to the employees as well as pay interest from May 2009 until the salaries are paid in full. Sadly, out of the about 400 drivers who had been agitating for higher pay in the 1990s, only a fraction are alive today.

A number of these workers were elderly and were nearing retirement. The protracted court battle may have made things more difficult in their twilight years. The younger ones, mostly in their thirties then, did not take things too well and many of them, according to insiders, took to hard drinking, while some sunk in depression.

“What is going to happen to many of us who have died? From 1998 when the first batch of drivers was retrenched, out of the 400 drivers that were there, I think about 250 are dead,” said Kariuki Kimiti, one of the surviving former locomotive drivers.

“Many were elderly people and a good number may have died of old age. For the younger drivers who had been recruited in the mid and late 1980s, there was frustration, depression and even what I can call madness. We were 200 drivers (the lot recruited in the 1980s), but between 80 and 100 could be dead.”

George Ododah, another former driver, said many of them were not happy with their terms of service.

“A senior locomotive driver was being paid not more than Sh5,000 then. It was a tough and risky job, the remuneration was also so low,” said Ododah.

He said about 100 of them were retrenched in May 1998 after the ruling. “I think we were targeted because we were the leaders of those who were agitating for higher pay,” explained Ododah.

Although the court did not specify how much Kenya Railways ought to pay, the aggrieved former employees had gone to court seeking Sh429 million in salary increases.

The Employment and Labour Court Judge Maureen Onyango also ordered Kenya Railways to pay interest on the money for failing to obey earlier directions by different courts.

“In view of the fact that the respondent (Kenya Railways) refused to implement the Court Award in Cause No 72 of 1995 as well as the court orders made on September 26, 2003 and the Court of Appeal decision made on May 8, 2009, the respondent shall pay interest on the decretal sum at court rates from the date of the decision of the Court of Appeal being May 8, 2009 until payment in full,” she said on November 4 this year.

Kariuki Kimiti, one of the surviving former locomotive drivers.

Kimiti has over the years followed the case closely and was at one time the key witness. He talked of betrayal by the corporation that then mutated to anger among many of his former colleagues.

The saga started unfolding a few years after Kimiti and a number of former train drivers were hired by Kenya Railways.

Kimiti joined Kenya Railways in 1987. He was part of a cohort that would undergo a seven-year training programme. The lengthy training programme was sponsored by the World Bank. The Washington-based institution had financed Kenya’s acquisition of 10 new locomotives at Sh3.5 billion and needed a new set of skills to operate what was then marketed as the state-of-the-art diesel-electric locomotives.

KRC had not undertaken intensive training of train drivers since the 1960s when the Kenyan government took over from the colonialists.

The first cohort was taken on in 1985, the second one in 1986 and the third one came on board in 1987.

In total, they were about 200 trainees. They would be taken through different aspects of train operations and management. This included mechanical, civil and electric engineering as well as world railway traffic rules and regulations.

They would also try and understand as much as possible about the general terrain of the rail from Mombasa to Kampala as well as the Nanyuki-Namanga route.

It was an intense training where the trainees had to score 76 per cent in their monthly assessments to remain in the programme.

Working conditions

During the course of the training, the trainees were retained as KRC’s employees and worked as train drivers, some rising to the position of senior locomotive drivers by the end of their training.

The agitation for salary increment and generally better working conditions had started in 1994 when the train drivers downed their tools.

It had been on the background of a train accident at Embakasi where a train rammed into the rear of another train at the station, killing five passengers.

The driver was arrested but would later be released when his railway colleagues made a case for him that he had been working under difficult circumstances and he was fatigued.

The strike would get nasty as KRC management fought back, kicking some of the employees out of the houses they had been allocated in Landmawe.

Kimiti, together with his colleagues and their young families, would spend eight days in the cold. KRC would terminate the contracts of some of the staff, including Kimiti, in 1994, but would shortly thereafter reinstate them and allow them back into their houses.

Media reports back then indicate that KRC had lost Sh550 million in about the one week that the train drivers were on strike.  

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