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Kenya's Minibus Drivers Say They Cannot Afford to Strike

  • Gabe Joselow

Matatu minibuses sit idle in Nairobi as they wait for customers, December 19, 2011.

Matatu minibuses sit idle in Nairobi as they wait for customers, December 19, 2011.

A Kenyan labor organization has called for minibus drivers to strike across the country this week to protest high fuel costs. But many drivers went to work anyway, saying they can not afford to miss a day's work.

It was supposed to be quiet on the streets of Nairobi, after the Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya (COTU) urged minibus drivers to keep their “matatus” in park. But with so many customers traveling out of the bustling capital to visit their family homes and villages for the holidays, the drivers decided they could not sit idle.

Dennis Kiboni stood by his matatu, waiting for passengers on a busy downtown street corner.

“Yeah it is a busy time, it is a festival season, business is booming it is on a peak," he said. "How can we strike when business is booming, it is on a peak? It is very hard.”

The strike follows labor protests by doctors, teachers and postal workers, all demanding better wages.

COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli says the cost of fuel not only affects bus drivers' wages, but also makes Kenyan businesses less competitive in the region.

“If you go to Uganda, Tanzania and what have you, the prices on petrol are cheaper compared to Kenya," said Atwoli. "And this has pushed everything high. Even the cost of production here in this country is high, most of our factories are closing down because we do not have a constant supply of electricity.”

Atwoli is calling for lowering fuel prices by 30 percent, and says the government has been responsive to union demands.

But while matatu drivers agree with the union's cause, many say even the warning of a strike, announced over the weekend, has kept customers away.

One driver, Gabriel, sat in a line of parked vehicles, waiting for enough passengers to make his route north of town worthwhile.

“There is no passengers because they are fearing about the strike," said Gabriel. "It is very bad, because some of the owners of these vehicles are paying loans. And even us, workers, we want something to celebrate in December.”

Kenya's inflation rate rose to nearly 20 percent last month, driven up by rising food and fuel prices. The Kenyan shilling, which was in decline for much of the year against the U.S. dollar contributed to the rising cost of living.

Desperate for relief from high prices, workers are growing more frustrated with the widening gap between the rich and poor.

Another matatu driver, Francis, is waiting for customers in downtown Nairobi.

“The more they push us, the more we will strike to those people, we will go to their houses and look for what we can eat there, in their fridge,” said Francis.

While Francis decided not to strike, he and the other drivers say there could be more work stoppages in the coming year, particularly during elections, if politicians do not start heeding calls for help.