Trade Unions in Kenya

Trade unions are platforms where employees air their grievances.The role of the trade unions is to fight for better conditions for the employees in Kenya. In Kenya COTU is the governing body of all trade unions. The current leader of COTU is Atwoli Bifwoli.

The enactment of a Trade Unions’ Ordinance in 1937 by the colonial government, and its amendment in 1940, resulted in a dash for the registration of workers’ unions in Kenya. From the initial three trade unions in 1937 immediately after the enactment of the ordinance, the number doubled to six in 1940. By 1963 as the country achieved independence, the number of trade unions had multiplied to 52, representing about 155,000 workers.

As the number of trade unions increased, there were attempts to form an umbrella body. In 1949, Markhan Singh and Fred Kubai created the East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC). However, the colonial government wouldn’t have it registered, arguing that it wasn‘t a trade union per se.

Then followed the formation of the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU) in 1952.

Aggrey Minya became its first secretary-general, before Tom Mboya took over the mantle the following year. In 1955, KFRTU changed its name to Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL). A conflict would later emerge at the helm of KFL, leading to the formation in 1965, of a splinter umbrella union, known as the Kenya African Workers Congress (KAWC), led by Dennis Akumu and Mak’Anyengo.

The disagreement between the two groups intensified. It was not so much about ideological differences, but more of personality clashes, according to a report of the Presidential Ministerial Committee on Trade Unionism in Kenya, appointed by President Jomo Kenyatta on June 23, 1965, to inquire into the problems afflicting Workers unions in the country.

By the time the president was receiving the report in August the same year, the conflict between the two umbrella unions had peaked in a scuffle in Mombasa on August 30, 1965, and had resulted in the death of three trade unionists and scores of injuries.

It did not take much convincing, therefore, for the President to accent to the recommendations by the committee that KFL and KAWC be deregistered immediately and a new Workers umbrella organisation, to be called the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Kenya), be formed.

In his acceptance of the report, President Kenyatta stated: “I will preface my remarks by saying how shocked and grieved I was to hear of the death of three trade unionists in a scuffle in Mombasa. Without prejudicing whatever judicial proceedings may follow, I would say that I trust that the implementation of the proposals of the Presidential Ministerial Committee on Trade Unionism in Kenya will put an end to the situation ir1 which such terrible things may occur.”

The President then directed through the statement dated September 1, 1965: “In order to make a clean and a fresh start, the existing trade union centres are being deregistered with immediate effect.

The Attorney-General will, in consultation with the Ministry of Labour, arrange the drawing up of the constitution of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, which will replace these two rival bodies. ”

With that stroke of the President’s pen following recommendations of a committee chaired by Dr Julius Kiano and comprising Tom Mboya, Achieng Oneko, Charles Njonjo, Lawrence Sagini, Joseph Murumbi, among others, the formation of Cotu was sealed.

It has been 48 years since, and despite some hiccups, the big one being its infiltration by and therefore affiliation to the Kanu government at the peak of President Moi’s regime, Cotu continues to execute its mandate of strengthening affiliate unions; lobbying for worker friendly labour policies, promoting worker education and articulating their views at both national and international forums.

Currently Cotu, through the affiliate unions, represents about 1.5 million workers in the country.

However, the organisation recently faced a potential challenge from attempts to revive its precursors; the Kenya Federation of Labour and the Kenya African Workers Congress.

Those fronting their revival claimed that they had been illegally deregistered by the Government in 1965, after which Cotu was created to take their place and assets.

When making their application for reinstatement in May 2012, the two trade unions wanted Cotu to be stopped from carrying out its activities until the matter was heard. They jointly claimed that the properties occupied and used by Cotu, including its Solidarity House headquarters in Nairobi and the Kisumu and Mombasa Tom Mboya Labour colleges, belonged to them.

The joint application was filed on May 3, 2012.

The Industrial Court dismissed the applications on October 15, 2012 through a ruling delivered by Judge Nzioki wa Makau. The two issued a notice of appeal on October 29, 2012, to challenge the decision at the Court of Appeal.

Trade unions in Kenya and the 2010 Constitution

The Constitution of Kenya 2010, which provides for industrial action under Article 41 in the Bill of Rights, has led to a fresh vibrancy in trade unionism. Some 14 trade unions have been registered since the promulgation of the Constitution on August 27, 2010, bringing the total number to 79.

The sudden push for new trade unions was just the beginning of an intensified boldness in industrial relations in the country. In particular, 2012 registered an unprecedented series of strikes and other forms of industrial action by discontented employees in different sectors.

A number of them are notable. In March 2012, nurses in public hospitals went on strike to push the Government to commit to a pay deal agreed on earlier. The strike lasted two weeks before the outstanding issues were resolved.

The nurses were at it again in December 2012 to demand for the registration of a new trade union they had created the year before, namely the Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN). Officials of the new union had applied for its registration in July 2012. The Registrar of Trade Unions had declined, arguing that there were trade unions that could sufficiently cater for the interests of the nurses.

Angry nurses put down their tools in protest on December 3, 2012. The union’s officials later appealed at the Industrial Court, upon which Principal Judge Mathews Nduma later ruled in a judgment dated April 16, 2013, that KNUN be registered on the basis of sections 12 and 18 of the labour Relations Act 2007, and Article 41(2c) of the Constitution.

Just before the nurses went on strike, public school teachers represented by the Kenya National Union of Teacher (Knut) and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary education Teachers (Kuppet) had stopped working to demand a 300 per cent pay rise in fulfilment of an agreement that had been signed With the Government in 1997. That had been on September 3, 2012. The strike ended three Weeks later on September 24 after talks yielded an agreement and the Government released a lump—sum payment.

In the meantime, starting September 6, 2012, public university Lecturers represented by the University Academic Staff Union, made good their threat to strike to demand a 200 per cent pay increase, in addition to pushing the Government to commit to negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for 2012 to 2014.

In August 2012, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union called its members to strike in support of trainee doctors, who had stopped working to demand a monthly stipend of Kshs92, 000 as agreed With the Government in December 2011. The union was also to force the Government to fulfil its part of a pay bargain negotiated in December 2011.

On September 4, 2012, a decision by Kenya Airways to go ahead with the laying off 447 workers was met with spirited resistance by the Aviation and Allied Workers Union (AAWU). In addition to calling a strike, the union successfully petitioned the Industrial Court to overturn the redundancy of the affected employees. In a judgment dated December 3, 2012, Judge James Rika ordered the airline’s management to reinstate the affected workers to the positions they held at the time the redundancy letters were issued to them.

Trade Unions in Kenya – Cotu Leadership

Clement Lubembe (1966-1969)

He was the first secretary – general of Cotu, following elections in 1966 that saw him defeat his rival Dennis Akumu. The latter became the deputy secretary— general.

Mr. Lubembe had close ties in the political system, just like most of the trade unionists of the time. He was close to Tom Mboya, through whom he wielded much muscle in the trade union movement.

However, three years after his election, the Attorney-General alleged that the union’s money was being squandered. This dented his image.

When the second election was called in 1969, Lubembe lost and opted to go into elective politics by vying for and winning the Ikolomani Member of Parliament seat in the Kakamega County.

Dennis Akumu (1969-1975)

He beat Lubembe in the 1969 Cotu elections, having put up a strong campaign in which he rallied a majority of the union executives behind him. Akumu also had political ambitions and affiliations.

He was an ally of Kenya’s first Vice President Oginga Odinga. In his time, he and the team behind him, calling itself the Kenya Group, listed a number of objectives that the new Cotu leadership sought to achieve. Among them was to build strong trade unions, to press for the autonomy of Cotu affiliates, to push for better living conditions for workers, and to protect Cotu funds.

Akumu would later become the secretary – general of the All African Trade Union Unity (AATUU) for 10 years.

Juma Boy (1975-1979)

A native of the coastal region, Juma Boy started off as a shop steward for the Kenya Dock Workers Union in Mombasa. His popularity and courage saw him rise to become the third secretary – general of Cotu. He has been described as “one of the most powerful trade unionists the country has ever produced”. Juma acquired his popularity through his boldness in championing the rights of workers and defending them against threats by employers. A notable achievement of Cotu during his leadership was the building of the Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu. It was also during his leadership that Cotu became active in pushing for better housing of Workers through housing cooperatives.

Justus Mulei (1981-1986)

Unlimited by national borders, Mr. Mulei is remembered as one of the first people to raise concern about the bad working conditions that Kenyans recruited for jobs in Saudi Arabia were subjected to.

He did so in 1977, promising to take the matter up With the International Labour Organisation at a conference he was to attend in June of the same year. Mr. Mulei explained that his concern was tempered by the fact that Saudi Arabia had no trade unions to protect Workers.

Mulei had been an assistant secretary-general under Juma Boy, and was a key resource person in the lobbying for workers to be aided to acquire housing through cooperative structures.

Joseph Mugalla (1986-2001)

Mr. Mugalla was a fiery trade unionist. He not only took on the Government and got arrested for it, such as in May 1993 for calling for a national workers’ strike to demand higher wages, but also told off the Bretton Woods’s institutions and foreign missions in Kenya for undue interference in the country’s governance.

In March 1998, he rallied an estimated 12,000 bank Workers to a strike in protest against a decision by the Ministry of Finance to introduce a 22 per cent tax on a loan that the bank employees were eligible for. The move was seen as a major defiance of President Daniel Moi’s government.

Francis Atwoli (2001-present)

With 12 years at the helm, Mr. Atwoli, who hails from Kakamega County, is the longest serving Cotu secretary-general so far.

He is a fire-spitting outspoken man who has no qualms publicly declaring his stand on national matters affecting workers.

Mr. Atwoli’s persistent push for minimum Wage increments every Labour Day often puts him at loggerheads with employers. He is one of the most networked trade unionists Kenya has had, owing to his affiliations and membership in diverse regional and global trade union bodies.

In March 2013, he was unanimously elected as the first president of the newly formed Global Industrial Relations Oversight Board, Whose role is to collect and document worldwide data on industrial relations malpractices.

Mr. Atwoli is also the president of the Trade Union Federation of Eastern Africa, having been elected in 2011 for a third five-year term. Prior to becoming Cotu secretary— general, Mr. Atwoli led the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU).

Kenya National Union of Teachers – Knut

The Kenya National Union of Teachers is the most active trade union in Kenya. When the union calls its members to action, the matter becomes a national topic and a government concern.

In 1997, Knut staged one of its most intense strikes to demand a 300 per cent salary increment for teachers. Negotiations went all the way to President Daniel arap Moi, who, interestingly, had been among the brains behind the formation of Knut many decades back.

The salary agreement included introduction or increment of various allowances in phases. According to the deal, teachers in public schools would gradually get house allowances equivalent to 50 per cent of their basic pay, medical allowances amounting to 20 per cent of the basic pay, a commuter allowance worth 10 per cent the basic pay, and for those in areas gazetted as hardship regions, a hardship allowance equivalent to 30 per cent the basic pay.

The Remuneration of Teachers Order of 1997, as the deal was called, has had an impact to date.

In June 2013, threats by Knut to call a strike to push for the final fulfillment of these allowances got President Uhuru Kenyatta appealing to the union to exercise restraint, with a promise that the Government would ultimately fulfill its part of the bargain. The Deputy President, William Ruto, made a similar appeal at a different forum and confirmed that the line ministry of the new government was already working on some proposals. Knut ignored their calls and staged a strike beginning June 24 which lasted for a nearly a month before it was called off.

Knut draws its strength from the strong spirit that led to its creation in 1957, the critical nature of the sector that it serves (education), the huge size of its membership, and the energetic leadership it has enjoyed since its inception.

With more than 70 branch offices across the country and shop stewards in all the 19,000 public schools, the union is the most networked in Kenya. It represents approximately 200,000 members countrywide. Each of these members contributes two per cent of their salaries to Knut, giving it a solid financial base in addition to its physical presence.

Knut was formed out of a dire need by African teachers for a national body to speak for them and to deal with exploitation by their various employers, namely: Missionaries (primary school teachers); Government (primary and secondary school teachers, mainly of European decent); and African Teachers Service (for African secondary school teachers). This system put teachers under diverse terms of service and conditions of work.

The first attempt to form a national trade union was initiated in 1934 by Eliud Mathu and James Gichuru. They created the Kenya African Teachers Union (KATU).

But due to the communication challenges of organising national events, made more difficult by the hostile colonial government then, KAT U could not hold its ground.

The teachers regrouped later in the 1950s and started forming localised associations. Notable ones included the Nyanza African Teachers Union (NATU); Catholic African Teachers Association (CATA), also in Nyanza Province; Rift Valley African Teachers Association (RATA); Coast African Teachers Union (CATU); and Kikuyu Teachers Union (KTU) in Central Province.

The impact of these associations was limited to the regions they represented. Things took a turn for the better when one of the officials of the teachers’ association in the Rift Valley, Daniel arap Moi, got elected to the Legislative Council (Legco) in 1955. It would be Moi, two years later in 1957, to move a motion asking the Government to facilitate the establishment of one national association of teachers.

The motion was accepted and in December of that year, the Minister for Education, W.F. Coutts, reputed for his good relations with Africans, invited the leaders of all the regional teachers associations to a convention at Pumwani Primary School in Nairobi. It was at this meeting that Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut), was born. The key interim officials were Ignatius Mkok as president and Stephen Kioni as secretary-general of the Interim Central Executive Committee.

A year later on December 10, 1958, Knut held its first annual conference at the same venue and conducted its first national elections.

Joseph Kioni sailed through as the first elected secretary—general. Samwel Ayany, a representative of NATU, was elected president of the union.

The elections paved way for the formal registration of the union on May 14, 1959. In 1960, Mr. Kioni, who had been a trainer at Kilimambogo Teachers Training College, resigned his job to concentrate on the union work full-time. That marked the start of the building of the union into a powerful national institution.

Knut Leadership

Stephen Kioni (1958-1969)

Having been elected the first secretary- general in 1958, Stephen Kioni established the first Knut office. It was located in a garage in Ruiru town, a 30-minute drive from Nairobi. It was a personal sacrifice for Kioni, as Knut didn’t have money to pay him any salary.

The office made it possible for the Central Executive Committee then (now the National Executive Council) to meet and make its first policy demands to the Government.

Knut’s major interest was to have a single employer of teachers so that their terms and work conditions could be harmonised, and to centralise the handling of their affairs.

The rest of the demands were as follows:

  1. Free pension for all teachers
  2. Pay rise for teachers in all grades
  3. Responsibility allowance for all posts of responsibility
  4. Abolition of the Colonial Code of Discipline.

These demands led the Government to form what became known as Lawrence Sagini Commission, to advise on the way forward. Knut rejected the proposals that the commission came up with. The Government established another body to look into the teachers’ demands. The Teachers’ Service Commission (TSC) was created. TSC’s recommendations were hardly different from those offered by Sagini commission. Knut rejected them. Its first strike was brewing.

Meanwhile, Ayany, the Knut president had made good use of an invite to attend the 1960 assembly of the World Confederation of Organisations of Teaching Profession (WCOTP) in Rome to push for Knut’s recognition. He had been invited in his capacity as an official of NATU, but his nationalistic views took precedence.

He pushed for the affiliation of Knut to WCOTP. At the same time, he managed to secure funding from WCOTP, which came in the form of part payment of Kioni’s salary. This arrangement would continue until Knut started receiving its own money in 1964 through member contributions.

Before then, Knut had staged its first national strike in 1962. It started with two regional strikes to add pressure on the policy demands that the TSC had not, in the union’s view, satisfactorily handled. The regional strikes served to test the capacity of the union to stage an industrial action.

The first regional strikes were staged from March 19 to 20, 1962 in Nairobi, Nyeri, Mombasa, Kilifi, Baringo, North Nyanza and South Nyanza. The second token strike ran from March 26 to 27 in Machakos, Kiambu, Murang’a, Taita, Nakuru, Kisii and Central Nyanza.

While the colonial government was not moved by the token strikes, they had been a good warm up for the union as it prepared for a national strike.

The first national strike by Knut Went on for almost a month. It started on September 18 and ended on October 11, 1962 after the Government yielded and appointed a committee. The action set off negotiations that would ultimately result in the Government accepting to introduce the check-off system for collecting union dues. The agreement was sealed on January 1, 1963, and the matter effected in 1964.

However, the demand for a single employer was still in contention.

The TSC as formed in 1965 was disbanded under pressure from Knut, which had not accepted it as constituted, leading to the setting up of a Board of Inquiry by the Minister for Labour to settle the matter. The meetings led to a favourable constitution of TSC. The Government failed to implement it. Knut staged its second national strike on October 11, 1965 as a result.

But it was short—lived as the Government promptly arrested union officials after declaring the strike illegal. They were later released. The intimidation did not deter Knut’s demands for a single employer. On November 1, 1966, Knut staged its third national strike.

It lasted three days, and the Government yielded to the formation of a favourable TSC, which was eventually established through an Act of Parliament following a bill tabled by Education Minister Jeremiah Nyagah. The TSC Bill was passed in 1966 and the subsequent Act provided for the establishment of TSC as the sole employer of teachers in Kenya’s public schools. TSC became operational on July 1, 1967.

Part of the immediate Work was the formation of the Teachers Service Remuneration Committee (TSRC) to iron out remuneration issues that Knut had raised in its first policy demands. Negotiations went well, but the minister responsible declined to implement the recommendations of the TSRC.

That was in 1969, and on November 4 the same year, Knut staged its fourth strike to push the minister to implement the TSRC recommendations. The strike ended on November 11 after the minister yielded to the pressure.

Ki0ni’s term as Knut secretary-general ended the same year after he was jailed and J.E. Nyoka took over in an acting capacity. The period had marked a strong beginning of Knut.

Ambrose Adeya Adongo (1970-2001)

Mr. Adongo Was elected Knut second secretary-general in December 1970, in a contest between him and Nyoka as the leading contenders.

His 30-year term remains the longest by a single secretary-general to date. He is best remembered for his firm, fiery and unwavering leadership. It was he who led the 1997 teachers’ strike, which remains the most memorable to date, both for its intensity and the lasting impact it had.

Many of the strikes that have followed since have had something to do with pushing the Government to implement one aspect or another of the 300 per cent pay increase deal that Mr. Adongo had negotiated in 1997 on behalf of teachers.

While he was reputed for having perfected the art of arm—twisting the Government through vicious strike threats at crucial times, such as in periods heading to the country’s general elections, Adongo also spent a good amount of time building the capacity of the union.

For example, Knut held leadership trainings in 1982 and 1983. Before that, the union had hosted the 1973 WCOTP Assembly in Nairobi. The assembly saw the birth of the All African Teachers Organisation (AATO), and Mr. Adongo was elected its first president.

Other notable capacity events during Mr. Adongo’s leadership include the 1982 amendment of the Knut constitution to include a Women representative in the National Executive Council (NEG) and in the Branch Executive Committee (BEG), and the 1992 creation of the post of school representative. Mr. Adongo died in March 2001.

Francis Ng’ang’a (2001-2008)

He had been Mr. Adongo’s deputy and was elected secretary-general of Knut in June 2001 following the death of his boss. A vocal person who would not hesitate to push across Knut’s perspective on policy issues on education, he kept the visibility of the union high. Like his predecessor, Ng’ang’a knew just when and how to Wield strike threats to push issues of interest to teachers.

By the time he took over in 2001 the Government had gone slow in fulfilling part of the Remuneration of Teachers Order of 1997. The agreement had outlined how the teachers’ salaries and allowances would be improved gradually through to 2001.

When that did not happen, Ng’ang’a had to engage the Government in further negotiations.

Through his stewardship, Knut organised a nationwide strike to push the Government to renew its commitment to the 1997 agreement, after Education Minister Henry Kosgey tried to scuttle it.

That was in 2002, when it was agreed that the Government would spread the increments through 10 years. That period was reviewed in 2003 to six years after a series of meetings, and further down to five years in discussions held in 2007.

The Government fulfilled the salaries increments under Schedule A of the 1997 agreement, but not the part dealing with allowances, marked Schedule B, which remains contentious to date. Mr. Ng’ang’a resigned in 2008, and Lawrence Majali took over.

Lawrence Majali (2008-2010)

Majali’s maiden speech on December 3, 2008, soon after winning elections to replace Ng’ang’a was basically a warning that the union was not going to sit pretty as the Government dragged its feet toward fulfilling part of the 1997 agreement.

His term was not so eventful, nonetheless, apart from the July 2010 rejection of a 40 per cent salary increment by TSC, with the demands that the increment be raised to 60 per cent as had been earlier negotiated. In December the same year, he and his chairman, George Wesonga, were ousted unceremoniously at a delegates meeting in Mombasa. David Okuta, who had deputised him, took over as the Knut secretary—general pending elections.

David Okuta Osiany (2010-2013)

After acting as secretary-general from December 2010, Mr. Okuta was confirmed to the position in April 2011 after he won the elections.

His charisma endeared him not only to teachers, but also the Government of Mwai Kibaki, who awarded him the Order of the Burning Spear on December 12, 2012, during Jamhuri Day celebrations in Nairobi.

A few months earlier in September 2012, he had led Knut in pushing the Government to effect teachers’ salary increments through honouring the pending bits of the 1997 deal. The Government had made a four per cent salary increment offer, which the union had declined and had gone on strike just as pupils prepared for national examinations. The ensuing negotiations had ultimately secured a 40 per cent pay increase for teachers.

Okuta’s promising leadership was, however, cut short when he died on the night of April 2, 2013 after an on-and-off battle with illness in the earlier months. Xavier Nyamu, his deputy, took over in acting capacity. He was replaced by Mudzo Nzili.

Tough talking Knut chairman Wilson Sossion became the face of Knut as the union called teachers to strike on June 24, 2013. He is set to be elected secretary –  general and Nzili national chairman.

Challenges faced by trade unions in Kenya


Due to the rapid growth of technology in the country machines have been introduced and they have lendered people jobless. Trade unions are struggling to make sure that their members do not lose the job.

Mismanagement of funds

When funds allocated for various duties are used wrongly by few individuals the objectives of the organisation are not met effectively


Politicians have taken advantage of the association making it a platform for campaigns. Many of them divert the attention of the association to politics while its main objective is to fight for the rights of workers. The selfish members of the association have used it to acquire funds from the particular politicians.

The law

The labour laws in Kenya are inadequate compared to the international labour laws standards and therefore the challenges concerned with employment cannot be tackled.

Splitting of unions

Unions are always faced with separations problems. It is unfortunate that some of these associations end up breaking down completely in the long run.

List of Trade Unions in Kenya