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 organized Trade Union of the workers. However, with the change of attitude in the British Labor Policy in her colonies resulted in the enactment of 1937 Trade Unions’ Ordinance which stipulated conditions under which Africans could organize themselves into trade unions.

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

  • 1. East African Standard Union (EASU)
  • 2. East African Standard Staff Union (EASSU)
  • 3. Labor Trade Union of East Africa (LTUEA)

In 1940, the 1937 Ordinance was amended. Consequently, the number of trade unions in Kenya rose from three (3) to six (6). With the rising political tempo immediately after the end of the Second World War, the situation began to change rapidly when Kenya African Study Group (KASG) 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, Brother Makhan Singh organized an Asian Railway Trade Union, (ARTU) in which he openly associated himself with Africans despite the existence of color, bar and racial discrimination. He associated with Brother Fred Kubai and Brother Chege Kebachia. More trade unions came into being such as Nairobi Taxmen Union, (NTU) and General Maskini, (Poor People’s) Union, (GMU).


The pre-independence period saw the emergence of unions registered among them were; Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, (TAWU), Domestic and Hotel Workers’ Union, (DHWU), Quarry Workers’ Union, (QWU), Night watchmen Workers’ Union, (NWWU), East African Federation of Building Construction Workers’ Union, (EAFBCWU) and Tailors’ Union, (TU).

This was followed by the formation of a National Trade Union called the Kenya Federation Of Registered Trade Unions, (KFRTU) in 1952 with Brother 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 emergency break 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.

Brother Thomas Joseph Mboya “Tom Mboya” became the General Secretary of Kenya Local Government Workers Union, (KLGWU) and was later elected the General Secretary of the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions, (KFRTU) which gave way to the formation of Kenya Federation of Labor (KFL).

It is this period of KFL, that the trade union movement was very exciting, militant and in the forefront fighting for freedom in Kenya. However, it is also at this time that rivalry for leadership almost ruined the movement. Nevertheless, the industrial relations machineries were bad and the employer/employee relations grew worse. The time also saw emergence of splinter groups, which were brought under control. One of the most striking events 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 Brother Tom Mboya when he visited United States of America after his study at Ruskin College, Oxford. The building cost was over Kenya Shillings Seven Hundred Thousand Only (Kshs. 700,000/=) part of which was raised locally by the workers.


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

1. 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 organization for trade unions in the country”.
2. To protect the workers and advance the interests of the Nation as a whole.
3. The check-off system is compulsory for all trade unions.

These recommendations and others that are not listed here were approved by the then President of Kenya. Since then, the membership of COTU (K) grew to about Four Thousand (400,000) workers in the late 1980s. The number then declined with implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programs and the effect of Globalization. However, with further organization COTU (K) membership has since shot-up to forty one (41) affiliates with a membership of over 1.7M.



1. Bro. Tom Mboya 1953 – 1963
2. Bro. Peter Kibisu 1964 – 1965


3. Bro. Clement Lubembe 1st August 1966 – 23rd February 1969
4. Bro. Denis J. Akumu 23rd February 1969 – 21st February 1975
5. Bro. Juma Boy 21st February 1975 – 17th March 1984
6. Bro. Justus Mulei 17th March 1984 – 29th December 1986
7. Bro. Joseph Jolly Mugalla 29th December 1986 – 24th August 2001
8. Bro. Francis Atwoli 24th August 2001 – To Date