NAIROBI — Known for their erratic driving and frequent flouting of traffic laws, Kenyan public minibus drivers are either loved or hated. One driver wants to form a union in order to improve the quality of life for his colleagues, while helping to contribute to safer roads.
Called “matatus,” Kenya’s 14-seat minibuses account for roughly 11 percent of the more than one-million registered vehicles in the country, according to the World Health Organization. Trying to pick up as many passengers as possible during the day, matatu drivers are known for cutting off other motorists, overlapping long lines of waiting vehicles, driving at unsafe speeds, and showing general disregard for traffic laws.
Having worked as a matatu driver for 10 years, James Kariuki argues life is not easy for himself and his colleagues. He said he must pay the matatu owner about $53 per day for the use of the vehicle; he also needs to make enough money for fuel, police bribes, gang protection, and incidentals like tire-puncture repairs. Additionally, he hires a “conductor” who solicits passengers from the side door.
In order to earn a daily rate between $9-12, Kariuki said he must take in about $164 per day. And with some matatu trips costing less than 24 cents, he and his colleagues do whatever it takes to get as many passengers as possible.
“This is what makes me feel the pain, because I could see drivers waking up, working the whole day, beating traffic jams, inhaling fumes from the traffic jam, and then in the evening going home with 200 shillings [$2.34]," said Kariuki. "And I realized that even if he gets sick, he does not have money. No hospital insurance, no insurance for nothing. So I thought we could do something.”
There are matatu associations in Kenya, but these usually just help provide some financial assistance to members who need it.
Forming a union
Kariuki is working with 11 of his colleagues to start a public-service-vehicle drivers' union that can recommend properly trained drivers to matatu owners. Owners, in turn, would provide them shorter hours, health insurance, and a monthly salary instead of commission-based earnings.
Kariuki wants drivers to have proper training, since he said that many have bribed their way to a license. Kariuki said if matatu owners only hired vetted drivers, the roads would be much safer.
“And if he had no where else to hire the driver, to work on our route, then he would have to work under our conditions; which will mean, we will not be overlapping, we will not be breaking traffic rules intentionally, we are going to respect the rule of law, and we are going to make this as a career," Kariuki said. "That is basically what I, and now the team that we have set, have decided what we are doing.”
Dixon Mbugua is the national chairman of the Matatu Welfare Association, which represents the rights and interests of matatu owners in Kenya. He said that he does not support the creation of a drivers' union because the sector is still informal and the industry is not as lucrative as people may think.
Not so fast
“The thing here is that 95 percent of the matatus are operated by individuals," he said.
"That is, the individual could be owning one, two, three, four, five vehicles," added Mbugua. "You realize that in this country, investors have got a lot of commitments that they have to adhere to - things like insurance, we also have a lot of taxes, and some are paid in advance before you can do business ... All this boils down and eats up the daily returns of the vehicles, leaving a meager kind of projected income.”
Another complication for matatu drivers is that many of their vehicles are owned by police officers - which is not only illegal, but also a conflict of interest.
Mbugua said this is problematic. “A number of the vehicles, at least 30 percent of the matatus in this country, are owned by the law enforcers, be they the police, be they the local government personnel, and high-ranking persons in the government."
"And 90 percent of them are registered in their next-of-kin, to avoid this question of identity and what have you. And that is why, sometimes, enforcement of the law becomes very tricky,” he said.
And because many police officers illegally own matatus, Kariuki said by definition those drivers are not eligible for the National Social Security Fund benefits.
“The current investors are the police officers, people who are not supposed to have invested in the business. So they would not want this. Because now, if you say you are employed by a police officer, you want him to pay your NSSF, that means he will have to fill a form for you. And then, according to the law, he is not supposed to own [a matatu]," he said.
"So there is no way he is going to give you these documents that you can take to the NSSF, because your employer is a police officer. He owns a matatu," Kariuki added. "He is not supposed to own a matatu. So, they would not want this to happen. I know there are going to be a lot of challenges.”
Despite the challenges, Kariuki says he and his colleagues will continue to work to establish a union that will represent their rights, even if change happens slowly.