An Important Milestone in Kenyan Labor History

By Larry Williams Jr. and Neha Mathew-Shah

In a major first, airport workers, represented by the Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU), went on strike. The KAWU representing 10,000 workers employed at companies including Kenya Airways, Kenya Airports Authority, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, Swiss Port, Kenya Trade Unions Aviation Service, conducted a strike.

We witnessed African workers fighting layoffs and their right to do quality work, similar to their counterparts in the American airline industry, including service personnel, flight attendants, and mechanics.

Of course, we headed to the airport to meet these courageous workers and express solidarity.

There, we spoke with the Hon. Babu Owino, a Member of Parliament, after we saw his play-by-play about the strike on Twitter, and his support for airport workers:

Mr. Owino explained that these union workers face massive layoffs due to a potential merger between KQ (Kenya Airways) and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA). Mr. Owino stressed the importance hearing the perspective of workers in danger of losing their jobs and took us to the nearby Kenyan Airport prison where at least 10 members of the Kenya Aviation Workers Union were detained.

Kenya Aviation Workers Union Secretary-General Moses Ndiema speaks at the Kenya Airports Authority offices, Nairobi, on February 4, 2019. He has been arrested. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

There we met with Secretary-General Moses Ndiema from the KAWU. When we visited him in prison, he was still missing a shoe, but his fighting spirit was high.

His description of the day's events described a worker-led, peaceful strike. He was sitting on a pillar and, within minutes, the police threw tear gas, and grabbed him violently.

Secretary-General Moses Ndiema from the KAWU was still missing a shoe visited him in prison he was still missing a shoe [PHOTO | Larry Williams Jr. | UnionBase

Mr. Ndiema explained that, in October, the union had “sent a letter to KQ (Kenya Airways) and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) management about the possible merger and had received no official response. He added, “they claimed they were not discussing a merger at the time.” Kenyan courts ruled that the union and management must meet in February, Mr. Ndiema said, “similar to America’s Federal Mediation process.” But, again, management failed to follow up. “It is the union’s position that KAWU gave a proper strike notice 7 days ago as per requirement before beginning the strike, and it is therefore legal,” he said.

Leaders of the Kenya Aviation Workers Union believe workers should have a voice in major decisions made that affect their employment. Mr. Ndiema explained the main issues as follows:

The deal to merge Kenya Airways (KQ) and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) was said to be finalized in March, likely triggering layoffs of nearly 10,000 workers, two-tier employment, outsourcing and discrimination: Kenya Airways CEO began hiring contract workers. Airport workers, including security employees, are being forced to work as contractors alongside colleagues that have full employment and benefits. Police violence against protesting and striking workers. According to local media outlets, more than six workers were injured during the strike when police attempted to break it up at JKIA.

The detained union workers were  taken to court today and are hoping to post bail and will need financial support to continue their struggle for justice, job security, and basic human rights from their employer.

-Larry Williams Jr. is President Emeritus of Progressive workers Union and Founder of, the first Social Networking Platform for Unions. Neha Mathew-Shah is President of Progressive Workers Union.

Passengers stranded at JKIA after Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) staff down their tools over the proposed merger of KQ and KAA. [Jonah Onyango/Standard]

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