Reflections on Workers’ Organization: Makhan Singh’s History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952

By September 2020, it was reported that 1.7 million Kenyans had lost their jobs due to the impact of COVID 19. In the context of an economy where 83.6% of total employment is in the informal sector, the greatest likelihood is that this account of job losses is a vast underestimate. The justification that this situation prevails the world over abdicates historical responsibility from a government that has eroded public resources (despite the low wages it pays and the high taxes it collects) and could have insulated its citizens from the shocks of the pandemic. Instead, the conditions that Makhan Singh wrote about in such painstaking detail in his History Of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement To 1952 continue to plague the country’s so-called independent condition more than half a century later.

Makhan Singh remains a paramount figure in Kenya’s history for laying the foundations of radical trade unionism and participating actively in the independence struggle. His activism began after his family moved to Kenya when he was 13 years old in 1927. He worked in the printing press founded by his father, as he could not afford to continue with his studies. Singh distinguished himself in his work by unifying the Indian and Kenyan trade unions; thereby undermining the colonial divide and rule racism. His calls in mass meetings for complete national liberation led to his detainment in India between 1940–1945, and later his confinement in colonial Kenya without any charges or trial for over a decade until 1961. In the book, Singh exhaustively relays the historical trajectory of the workers movement from its 19th century inception up to 1952. He contrasts the slave revolts that characterized the coast to the communal labour that was organized around family and kinship units in the hinterland. The fortified villages of Fuladayo, Makongoni and Mwaiba, formed by revolting slaves, were, as Singh explains, the first organized political alternatives to forced labour in Kenya.

Singh’s work remains one of the few writings that discusses the history of slave revolts in Kenya, which were mentioned only in passing by the British colonial diplomat and administrator, Arthur Henry Hardinge, in his book A Diplomat in the East (1928). Singh shows how the transition to the colonial capitalist economy not only presents a shift in the mechanics of oppression but also in the strategies of resistance. On the back of a racial classification that dehumanized black people as biologically inferior, and thereby enabled their commodification in the context of slavery, ‘voluntary’ wage labour under colonial capitalism was enforced through: direct statutory compulsion, imposition of hut and poll tax, dispossession of African lands, creation and use of chiefs to recruit their people as labourers, forcibly preventing labourers from leaving jobs they did not like, making ordinary disputes between employer and employee criminal offences, using famine-induced starvation to subdue people and legislating punitive laws (like the kipande registration system) for controlling the movement of African labourers. Resistance to this violence included spontaneous strike action, and later organized trade union strikes and boycotts.

Singh gives a comprehensive narrative of the context that animated the formation of the first strikes, associations and finally trade unions. One of the earliest strike actions was recorded in 1902 when fifty African police constables went on strike following the removal of their grievance allowances. This, along with many other isolated actions, were followed in 1921 by the formation of the Kavirondo Association and the Young Kikuyu Association. These associations were formed in wake of the death of hundreds of thousands of Africans in the First World War, (mainly as carrier corps) and the formal institutionalization of Kenya as a colony. It was the European soldiers who were compensated with African land, whilst taxes were increased and wages reduced for the Africans. These formations culminated in the General Strike of 1922 that sought the release of Harry Thuku, the chairman of what became the East African Association, one of the first multi-ethnic political organizations. The strike ended in a bloodbath where Muthoni Nyanjiru – one of the few women leaders in the strike – was amongst 150 Africans who were murdered along with scores of others injured by the colonial police force.

The response was to detain without trial political figures like Harry Thuku, and later, Fred Kubai, Chege Kibachia, and Singh himself. As divide and rule was a refined colonial strategy that sought to entrench division through race, gender and ethnicity, the incipient associations were only allowed to form if ethnically constituted. Chiefs, even where none previously existed, were appointed to undermine the authority of the local political systems. They also undermined locally constituted associations. For instance, the Kavirondo Taxpayers Welfare Association was created in opposition to the Kavirondo Association. It de-radicalized the demands for freedom and land with depoliticized demands for ‘better housing’ and ‘better food’.  Racial divisions were sewn through preferential wages and the institutionalization of a hierarchy of education that ranked Europeans first, followed by Asians and Black Africans last. Conscious of how racially constituted organizing undermined working-class solidarity, Singh called for the unification of the Indian and African trade unions under the Labour Trade Union of East Africa.

The hiring of mostly male workers undermined the division of domestic labour. The women were left not only to care for the homes and the farms, but also to take up men’s labour so as to substitute the meager incomes the men received. This labour, because it was not waged began to be seen as non-labour. This phenomenon is captured in a report written by the Committee on African Labour in 1942, a body which was appointed by the colonial government, did not have a single African member, and whose main recommendation was that the conscription of African Labour for essential services should be introduced. The colonial government stated in an addendum 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 percent was added for the cost of food and another 50 percent for housing it still only came to -/60 (cents) a day or 7d. for a day’s work.

He recognized 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 subsidized by the labour of women and children in the reserve’.1Makhan Singh, History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969), 110 

This data tangibly presents how the imperial revenue-making (and later, the profit-making basis for a neo-colonial regime) was predicated on forced labour after land dispossessions on a massive scale had fostered the conditions needed in order for proletarianization and forced labour to be enforced. It also fundamentally underscores how women’s free domestic labour was exploited in the reproduction of the worker – then and now.

But resistance persisted. Canteens, local dances and clubs were used to mobilize workers even after Harry Thuku was detained. These efforts resulted in the formation of the Labour Trade Union of Kenya in 1935 (later registered as “the Labour Trade Union of East Africa” in Tanganyika and Uganda). By 1940, strikes became a common feature, leading to the banning of the Kikuyu Central Association, Ukamba Members Association and Taita Hills Association and the detaining of their political leaders like Singh, who was detained without trial in India for a number of years. However, this only served to embolden trade unions. Crucially, Singh also provides evidence of how women slowly joined the labour market, and how they organized against exploitative work in the squatter camps, taxes, low wages, and poor conditions in the farms. He gives an example of the Thika Coffee pickers protest, where ‘in November, 1941, the African women in Thika area…  employed as coffee-pickers, were able to win an increase in coffee-picking rates through their united action’.2Singh, 1969, 109.

The Mombasa General Strike in 1947 organized more than 15,000 workers and paralyzed the railways, the docks, hotels, offices, banks and private offices. It led to an increase in wages and ushered in a new era of mass workers mobilization. Chege Kibachia, the President of the African Workers Federation, was arrested as one of the leaders of this strike. The Cost of Living and Wages Conference was held in Nairobi in September 1948 to herald the formation of the centralized organization of trade unions in the East Africa Trade Union Congress (EATUC), with Fred Kubai as President and Singh as General Secretary. By this time, domestic workers, night watchmen, shop messengers, stone and quarry workers, shoe-makers and wood workers had self-organized into associations that joined the union. By 1950, one of the biggest workers meetings was held in Kaloleni Social Hall by the EATUC to agitate against the newly enforced Ordinance for Employment of Voluntarily Unemployed Persons, a piece of forced labour legislation. They also agitated for the release of Kibachia. A massive boycott ensued against the government celebrations promulgating Nairobi as the capital city, in the clearest sign that had yet emerged of the collaboration between trade unions and national movements for liberation. The union was banned, along with publications from the World Federation of Trade Unions, which gave solidarity to liberation efforts by workers in the anti-colonial struggle. By this time, what Singh terms the Uhuru Oath Organization, better known as Mau Mau, was fully entrenched in various parts of the country to fight against oppression, leading to the state of emergency that was declared by the British colonial government in 1952.

By this time, Singh had already been held for two years without charges in India in 1940 for his participation in strikes and other anti-colonial activities. After his release, he was restricted to his native village in Gujranwala for a further two and a half years. On his return to Kenya in 1947, there was an unsuccessful attempt to deport him back to India for his radical communist views. Undeterred, the colonial government arrested him once more, this time for being an ‘undesirable person’ as stipulated in the Deportation Ordinance of 1949. Despite his court defense presenting no legal cause for his arrest, he was detained for 11 years at a political prison in Lodwar and other facilities, and was not permitted to have any visitors, including his family. He was released unconditionally in October 1961 and immediately resumed his trade union and political activities up to and beyond 1963, when Kenya gained its independence. This book was therefore authored as a historical narrative that placed trade unionism at the center of the anti-colonial struggle by a man who paid a great price for Kenya’s independence. Singh places trade unionism as a product of revolutionary agency against imperialist domination and for the freedom of the worker from capitalist exploitation. This is contrary to the current trade unions in Kenya that seek leadership as an admission ticket into the elite political class.

Singh’s detailed research, published in 1969, includes memorandums, demand letters, minutes of union and associations, newspapers, colonial government policy papers, pamphlets as well as his own experience, and presents an exemplary record of the history of the labour movement in Kenya. The author however, in the tradition of political writings of the time, did not give his personal account of the movement, but only mentions his workings in a formal capacity.

That Singh was already sidelined at the time of the publication of this book shows the contradictions that corrupted trade unions, and a more personal history would have provided young union activists now with a living example of the problems that afflict such movements. However, it is pertinent to keep in mind the fate of other trade unionists and political leaders who decried the continued oppression and dispossession of land by the Jomo Kenyatta government – Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated in 1965, and when Singh’s book was published in 1969, Achieng Oneko one of the freedom fighters who had been detained with Kenyatta before independence, was arrested by the president because he critiqued his government. Tom Mboya was assassinated in 1969 and the socialist Kenya People’s Union, led by Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kaggia was outlawed in the same year. Fred Kubai’s foreword to the book cited Kenyatta’s great influence and the people’s confidence in him, which given the political happenings of the time, seems to have either been borne out of ambition, as he was then the assistant minister for labour, or fear.

Singh’s History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952 provides the possibility for making historical analytical comparisons and studying the evolution in the conditions of labour. It shows how women’s crucial position in the home was relegated to the private sphere, and was deemed unwaged and inferior, whilst men’s labor, positioned in the public sphere, was waged and therefore superior; thereby installing new structures of patriarchy. It also contextualizes the Kenyan labour movement in the colonial era within regional movements like the Tanganyika and Uganda Unions, its membership in the World Trade Union Conference and participation in the Pan African Congress held in Manchester. It demonstrates that lowly waged shoe-shiners, farm labourers and domestic workers in both urban and rural areas in Kenya have not only forged collective efforts locally, but also sought collaboration and solidarity regionally and internationally.

The fragmentation of labour movements by neo-colonial governments reinforced the colonial strategies of divide and rule. Exploitation that calcifies the oppression of the working class is undermined by the distinctions of ethnicity and gender. Labour movement leaders now form part of the bourgeoisie and a chasm has formed between them and the working people. Structural Adjustment Programs and the casualization of labour have rendered most unions ineffective in the workers’ struggles. The days when labour unions demanded their land back, along with political freedom, social security and government services such as water, sanitation and health care, seem to be locked in history.

Singh’s History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement therefore provides an important historical source for inspiration and organization for workers against capitalism and imperialism, and a critical source of reflection for those engaged in the pursuit for social justice in Kenya and beyond.

Noosim Naimasiah is a panafricanist, an activist and an editor at Vita Books, a Nairobi-based publishing house which is republishing History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952 in the summer of 2021. This new edition of the book will include Makhan Singh’s autobiography, a foreword by Dr. Willy Mutunga and a list of papers contained in Makhan Singh’s archive held at the University of Nairobi Library.