The automotive sector in Kenya is experiencing a growth spurt, with global companies Isuzu, Nissan, Scania, Tata, Toyota, and Volkswagen expanding assembly lines. With fewer permanent jobs and more precarious work, unions say this growth is of little benefit to workers.
Kenya Vehicles Manufacturers assemble for Tata and Scania, whilst Associated Vehicles Assemblers is contracted to Toyota. The value chain includes parts, distribution and maintenance.
With the East African Community customs union relaxing requirements to make it attractive to assemble vehicles in Kenya, this is a growth opportunity for the sector. Promoting the buying of locally produced vehicles instead of used cars from other parts of the world is another stimulant.
However, retrenchments in the auto sector are common and cheap imports continue to flood the market. Unions say this is worsened by weak protection mechanisms in industrial policies and the lack of an integrated economic strategy.
To discuss the challenges and solutions in the sector, the IndustriALL Global Union Sub Saharan Africa region recently organized meetings in Nairobi that were attended by affiliates, the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metalworkers (AUKMW) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). Collaboration and learning between affiliates in different countries was emphasized. A further meeting is planned for next year, to integrate African auto unions into the global network.
The meetings heard that in 2015, VW, which receives near-complete vehicles from South Africa — only short of doors, bonnets, tyres and a few other items which are fitted by four full-time workers — announced plans to open a bigger assembly line with the potential to create 2,000 jobs. The government even promised to boost production by purchasing vehicles from the plant. Sadly, the AUKMW reported that despite high expectations, the company still employs only four full-time workers. Further, it employs 118 workers who have been on short-term contracts for 10 years. AUKMW is challenging this, but its attempts to push for permanent employment through the courts failed.
After the meeting, AUKMW facilitated a collective bargaining workshop that was attended by shop stewards from Isuzu, KVM, battery manufacturer Chloride, Sunfilter, Choda Fabricators, and Pelican Signs. The national labour centre, the Centre for the Organisation of Trade Unions, was represented at the meetings. There were exchanges on Kenya’s plant level bargaining versus South Africa’s centralized collective bargaining with the deputy labour commissioner expressing an interest in introducing bargaining councils to improve labour relations in the country.
NUMSA explained how it protected workers' interests when General Motors closed shop in South Africa, and during the transfer of some of the workers to Isuzu.
Says Kenny Mogane, IndustriALL regional officer for Sub Saharan Africa:
“We welcome AUKMW’s fight for permanent jobs and better working conditions for workers in the automotive sector and will continue to support their efforts to improve collective bargaining.”