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Historical Background


The trade union movement in Kenya, which became an important feature of our country's life, is a child of economic, social and political strives. It has evolved through difficult situations created mainly by the colonial government during that time which persistently defended Employers in order to avoid seeing a strongly organised Trade Union of the workers. However, with the change of attitude in the British Labour Policy in her colonies resulted in the enactment of 1937 Trade Unions' Ordinance which stipulated conditions under which Africans could organise themselves into trade unions.

After the publication of the above Ordinance, three unions were registered in Kenya by the Registrar of Trade Unions:

    East African Standard Union.
    Ease African Standard Staff Union.
    Labour Trade Union of East Africa.

In 1940, the 1937 Ordinance was amended, consequently the number of trade unions in Kenya rose from three to six. With the rising of political tempo immediately after the end of the Second World War, the situation began to change rapidly when Kenya African Study Group was formed which was later replaced by Kenya African Union (KAU) which started agitation for the return of African land, better wages and conditions and terms of service in Industry.

As the situation continued to grow tense, Makhan Singh organised an Asian Railway Trade Union in which he openly associated himself with Africans despite the existence of colour bar and racial discrimination. He associated with Fred Kubai and Chege Kebachia. More trade unions came into being such as Nairobi Taxmen Union and General Maskini (Poor People's) Union.

Pre-Independence Period.

The Pre-independence saw the emergence of a number of unions registered among them were. Transport and Allied Workers' Union, Domestic and Hotel Workers' Union, Quarry Workers' Union, Night watchmen Workers' Union, East African Federation of Building Construction Workers' Union and Tailors' Union.

This was followed by the formation of a National Trade Union called the KENYA FEDERATION OF REGISTERED TRADE UNIONS in 1952 with Aggrey Minya as the Secretary General. It was not registered because it was a Federation of already registered unions. It was affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1952 and was receiving advisory service from ICFTU.

After the break of Emergency in October 1952, the Trade Union movement suffered great setbacks because all leaders of several unions were arrested and detained for allegedly being associated with MAU MAU. Tom Mboya became the General Secretary of Kenya Local Government Workers Union and was later elected the General Secretary of the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions which gave way to the formation of KENYA FEDERATION OF LABOUR (KFL).

It is this period of KFL when trade union movement was very exciting and militant and was in the fore front in the fight for freedom in Kenya. More trade unions were registered. However, it is also at this time that when rivalry for leadership almost ruined the movement. Nevertheless, the industrial relations machineries were bad and the employer/employee relations grew worse. This time also saw emergence of splinter groups, which was brought under control. One most striking event was the erection of the workers Headquarters - SOLIDARITY BUILDING. The greater part of the money, which was used for building the Headquarters, was raised by Tom Mboya when he visited United States of America after his study at Ruskin College, Oxford. The building cost was over Kshs. 700,000/= part of which was raised locally by the workers.



1. Formation of COTU (K) PERIOD - 1965

Prior to the formation of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions COTU (K) in 1965 a negative occurred when confusion ensued in the labour movement being created by splinter groups, which unsuccessfully tried to form the Kenya Trade Union Congress. These splits continued until after Kenya had become Independent when the government was forced to internee into the conflict by appointing a Presidential Ministerial Committee to look into the matter with a view to -

    Review the trade union situation,
    To make recommendations on the policy contained in page 56 of Sessional Paper No. 10. African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, which calls for "one central organisation for trade unions in the country".
    To protect the workers and advance the interests of the Nation as a whole.

Ministerial Recommendations:

The important recommendations were that: -

    The Kenya Federation of Labour and the Kenya African Congress be de-registered with immediate effect.
    A new workers organisation be formed to be known as the "Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Kenya)" COTU (K).
    The check-off system be compulsory for all trade unions.

These recommendations and other which are not listed here were approved by the then President of Kenya. Since then, the membership of COTU (K) grew to about 400,000 workers in the late 1980s. The number then declined with implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes and the effect of Globalization. However with further organization COTU (K) membership has since shot-up to thirty-one (31) affiliates with a membership of over 1.5 million.

2. Establishment and Registration

Central Organisation of Trade Unions was established in 1965. Prior to its registration, the Kenya Federation of Labour was the Apex Body of Trade Unions in Kenya.

It is a registered organisation under the Trade Unions’ Act – Cap 233 of the laws of Kenya.


COTU (K) - Current Organizational Structure

Current organization structure

COTU (K) - Successive Secretary Generals since 1965

The list of the successive Secretary Generals of COTU (K) since it’s establishment in 1965 is as follows:

    Clement Lubembe
    Denis J. Akumu
    Juma Boy
    Justus Mulei
    Joseph Jolly Mugalla
    Francis Atwoli