Wartime strikes in Kenya - Makhan Singh

Makhan Singh on wartime strikes in Kenya, including struggles against conscript labour, railway strikes, and a general strike in Uganda in January 1945.

Submitted by Mike Harman on June 18, 2018

Excerpted and abridged from chapter 12 of Makhan Singh's HIstory of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952. East African Publishing House, 1969.


In spite of the restrictions imposted by the Colonial Government and the war situation, the workers were not prepared to take things lying down. Whenever and wherever possible they resisted both individually and collectively.

In August, 1941, all the taxi-drivers in Mombasa went out on strike in protest against "increasing hooliganism" on the part of some of the military or naval personnel and against lack of police protection. They ended the strike after about a week when necessary assurances were given.

A similar strike of Nairobi taxi-drivers took place in the following month. A report in E.A. Standard of 9.9.41 stated:

There have been several incidents between taxi-drivers and soldiers. One driver who was injured a week ago has died and two others recieved injuries in a brawl on Saturday [6.9.41]. A number of taxis have been damaged. The drivers have been discussion the formation of an organisation to present their interests.

The strike ended after a conference was held between the civil and military police authorities and after adequate police protection was assured.

A few days later there was a strike of caddies employed on the golf course of the Karen Country Club.

In November, 1941, the African women in Thika area, who were employe as coffee-pickers, were able to win increase in coffee-picking rates through their united action. The standard rate of 10 cents per debe was increased to 15 cents.

In the following month there was a strike of Nairobi firemen employed by the Municipal Council. The strike was on the question of wages, leave, fatigue and other grievances. Six 'ringleaders' were arrested for prosecution, but the rest of the 17 men demanded that either the leaders be released or they themselves should also be arrested and prosecuted. All of them were prosecuted, but the court released them after cautioning. The Municipal Council then conceded some of their demands.

At this time a government committee was considering the question of compulsory labour on farms and other places of employment. [..] In February, 1942, the report of the Committee on African Labour was published. The main recommendation of the committee was that conscription of African labour for essential services should be introduced. (This was later introduced by the Government after approval by the Secretary of State for the Colonies.)

A report on the Committee's Report published in the E. A. Standard of 12 February, 1942 stated:

Archdeacon Owen (a member of the Committee) added a note on the subject of wages remarking that taking 9/- per 30 day ticket as a basis this worked out at -/30 [cents] a day of six hours diligent work and if 50 per cent was added for the cost of food and another 50 per cent for housing it still only came to -/60 [cents] a day or 7d. for a days work.

He recognised that from the point of view of the employer the wage was determined by economic conditions outside their control, but no African could support a wife and family in the reserve on 30 cents a day and could only take such a small wage because his wife and family in the reserve grew their own food and also food for him when he was out of employment. Thus the industry employing the native labourer on these conditions was really subsidised by the labour of the women and children on the reserve.

Although the committee was concerned with African labour, there was not a single member on it who was African. The Africans in Kenya had almost boycotted the committee, only one African came before it to give evidence.

The reaction of African workers was expressed by Mr. K Ndimi of Nairobi in the following letter, which appeared in E. A. Standard of 25th March, 1942:

While agreeing that all able persons should work, I completely disapprove of the principle of forced labour underlying this conscription of Africas for labour to benefit individual white farmers. The Kenya farmers have always agitated for this kind of policy. Now they have got it. A large number of Africans hav joined the army not for high wages but because they understood from the Kenya Government that they were fighting for freedom. The weekly casualty list proves this.

The settlers have every opportunity to make themselves heard while we are not given a chance to express our point of view at all. Someone else is supposed to do this for us. In view of the disabilities from which the Kenya African sufers, let us hope that the government will reconsider this very important problem of labour and resort to the humane principle of voluntary labour.


At the same time there were 49,000 Kenya Africans in the E.A. Military Force and 221,000 in civilian employment.

From the beginning of April, 1942, under the Defence (Reserved Occupations) Ordinance, certain employees of Kenya Government, then E. A. Governors Conference, The East African War and Civil Supplies Board, the Kenya Supply Board and the War Risks Insurance Board were declared to be engaged on work of national importance "essential for the prosecution of the war." They included all European employees receiving a salary of £150 a year, or more; all Asians receiving 150/-a month, or more; and all Africans receiving 40/- a month, or more. This meant they could not leave their "reserved occupations" without the consent of the authorities. In case of infringement they could be prosecuted.

In the same month an order was issued for conscription of Asian artisans from the age of 18 to 55 years. In the preceding month another order had been issued under the Defence (Exit Permits) Regulations that none could leave Kenya without the permission of the Director of Manpower. There was urgent need for all kinds of artisans at the that time.

At the end of April, 1942, the Cost of Living Index was 127.8 as compared with 100 at the end of August, 1939.

The conditions imposed by the colonial system and the war situation were now becoming unbearable.

On Saturday, the 26th April, 1942, there was a noisy demonstration by a large crowd of Asian artisans and others against policies of the Government regarding conscription, requirement of exit-permits, and low rates of wages fixed by the authorities. Two persons were arrested and prosecuted for taking part in the demonstration, on charges of assault, but were acquitted.

In July, 1942, there took place a strike of conscript labour, which system was now in full force throughout Kenya. The strike occured at Gazi when some 200 Africans working as cconscript labour at Sisal factory left work in protest against too much work and marched en masse to Mombasa. At Likoni ferry they were met by a Labour Officer, who with the help of the District Commissioner, Kwale, prevailed upon the workers to return to work.


In October and November, 1942, the African workers came out openly for their demands for more wages and against food shortage. There we strikes in Mombasa, Nairobi, and other parts of Kenya. They demonstrated the new strength of African workers.

In the middle of October the African railway workers at Mombasa went out on strike. Their petition for more wages had recently been turned down by the administration. The crane-operators at the port came out on strike in sympathy with the railway strikers. The strike lasted for three days [...].

Seeing the success of the railway workers, the other employees in Mombasa, both government and non-government, began coming out on strike and returned to work only after assurances were given that their demands would be met in accordance with the recommendation of the Tribunal.

By the 25th October, strikes had spread to Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. Everywhere the demand was for increase in wages. All this was happening in spite of defence regulations prohibiting strikes. The militancy of workers was overwhelming. Three days later the tribunal gave its award regarding the railway employees in Mombasa [...]

Meanwhile, strikes in Nairobi were continuing. The obvious way to settle the disputes in Nairobi and other places would have been to take as guidance the tribunal's award given for Mombasa. But no, that was not to be, because the employers in Nairobi, considering that the award was too favourable to workers, had begun bringing pressure on the authorities. [...]

The tribunal began its hearings in Nairobi. More and more workers came out on strike, because, under the prevailing situation, only by going out on strike could the workers show that there was a trade dispute at a particular place of employment and thus get the dispute heard and decided upon by the tribunal.

The African Railway Staff Committee was very active during this period. in addition to it there were temporary organisations of African workers, who brought out the workers on strikes and kept the strikes going for as long as necessary. In these organisations the members and sympathisers of the banned African organisations - the Kikuya Central Association, the Ukamba Members Association and the Teita Hills Association libcom, before these associations were banned, only tribal-based associations were legal in Kenya, some of these groups in practice attempted to represent all African workers - played an active role and were fully supported by the members of the Nyanza organisations existing in Nairobi, Mombasa and other towns. The temporary organisations were, however, based on workers' solidarity and not on tribal affiliations. Occasionally the workers did appoint delegates to talk with the management or to make representations to the tribunal, but such delegates were always in danger of being victimised or arrested on any excuse. Only the very brave could act as delegates and leaders.

While the African workers were carrying out their struggles and winning victories in Mombasa, Nairobi and other places, the Indian workers waged a successful struggle against introduction of a system of kipande (certificate of employment) for all male artisans of Indian origin or descent, who were between the ages of 18 and 54. According to the system every such artisan was to be compulsarily trade-tested and classified, and his grade, wages and names of employers were to be recorded on a Certificate of Employment, which he was to carry everywhere like the kipande. libcom - the kipande was a compulsory registration document for African males over 15 years, in place since the 1920s. [...]

The general secretaries [of The Labour Trade Union of East Africa and the East African Ramgarhia Artisan Union], Gopal Singh and Arjan Singh Virdi, announced in a huge mass meeting of workers, held in Ramgarhia Hall, Nairobi, on the 8th November 1942, that joint representations had been made to the authorities for the withdrawal of the regulations. The meeting unanimously confirmed the joint action already taken and authorised both the unions to take the strongest possible measures in case the regulations were not withdrawn. The meeting was a great demonstration of workers. The result was that the authorities gave in to the demand [...]

On the 10th of November the Nairobi award of the Trade Disputes Tribunal was announced. While for Mombasa workers the tribunal had previously awarded an overall increase of Shs. 10/- per month, the Nairobi workers were awarded an increase of merely Shs. 6/50 and even that was only to be in kind and not in cash. [...]

This award of a paltry increase in wages created an immediate resentment among workers, and especially the railway workers, in Nairobi. About 1,600 African workers employed in the mechanical workshops of the Kenya and Uganda railways and Harbours, stopped work at noon on the 12th November to express their dissatisfaction with the award. Strikes followed in other parts of Nairobi. By threats of dismissals the railway workers were prevailed upon to return to work. And by arrests and police repression the other strikes in Nairobi were brought to an end. A few days later 750 African employees of the railway concrete factory came out on strike over wages and other conditions of employment. They demonstrated on the 16th November on the lawn in front of the railway headquarters, but were prevailed upon to go back to work after threats of dismissal. Railway strikers at Eldoret were also dealt with in the same manner.


The workers' struggle was now sufficiently strong to induce the Government to bring back the amending trade union legislation that it had withdrawn in 1941 in face of opposition from settlers and other employers. [...]

In the course of the debate in the Legislative Council,

Mr G. Nicol (Mombasa) stated that ... he personally felt that now there would be a move to create unions in the country. He would welcome them, because he had experience in trying to deal with strikes in Mombasa and disputes with labourers, and he knew how difficult it was to get someone responsible to negotiate with [...]

Thus is it clear that in face of Kenya workers' growing strength the employers now had no alternative but to tolerate the existence of trade unions. And in order to see that they function on the 'right lines' (from the viewpoint of employers) they wanted labour advisors brought in from Great Britain.


During this period there took place strikes of African railway workers in Mombasa and Nairobi. The strike at Mombasa concerned the number of firemen allowed for each engine and was settled as a result of negotiations. The strike in Nairobi was of 130 African drivers and fireman. It was on the question of wages. The Labour Department's report for 1944 remarked about the Nairobi railway strike that "the real instigators of the trouble will never be known."

On or about the 7th December, 1944, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Oliver Stanley, announced in a statement in the Commons that he had sent to East Africa his Labour Adviser, Major G St. J Orde Browne, who had already begun the tour of the East African territories. The purpose of the tour, the Secretary of State said, was to enquire into a report upon the labour conditions of East Africa.

Major Orde Brown visited Tanganyika, Rwanda Urundi, Belgian Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar. His tour ended in March, 1945. During his visit there was a general strike in Uganda and "labour unrest" in Kenya.

The General Strike in Uganda took place in January, 1945, for more wages and better conditions of employment. In order to suppress the strike the administration, the police and the military resorted to a reign of terror. By their actions eight workers were killed, several wounded and hundreds arrested. And on charges of activities during the strike the veteran trade union leaders of Uganda, I. K. Musazi and James Kivu, and other leaders were deported. Along with this, the Uganda Motor Drivers Association, which was formed in 1938 and had been a very active registered trade union, was folded up. As a result of the strike the war bonus was increased in the case of government employees and increase in wages was granted to other workers.

On the 18th January, news of the Uganda General Strike reached Nairobi and spread throughout Kenya like wildfire. Stike notices appeared in Nairobi. They were anonymous and called for a strike to start on 1st February. On the 25th January the Kenya Government issued a handout which, inter alia, stated:

The Kenya Government is determined that disorders such as have been experienced in Uganda shall not take place in Kenya. Government is aware that certain evilly-disposed persons up up a notice advising a strike in Nairobi and Government gives a firm warning that it will not tolerate illegal strikes...

Next Tuesday (30.1.1945) a new law will come into force making it a criminal offence for any person to incite workers in essential industries to strike or leave work, and people doing so will be properly dealt with and suitable punished...
(E. A. Standard, 26 January, 1946)

This threatening statement was criticised not only by workers but also by an editorial of E. A. Standard of 26.1.45, which, inter alia, stated:

We are witnessing the stirrings of new thought in Africa, and are attempting to cope with the problems arising from it by antiquated methods and creaking machinery. Restrictive legislation may postpone trouble, but it offers no answer to living issues

The opposition to Government's threats had its effect. The government had to make a gesture to appease the workers. [...] In the event, the strike called for 1st February did not take place.

Image - Gopal Singh and Makhan Singh in Kenya, 1950, from http://apnaorg.com/articles/amarjit3/