Historical development of Labour Laws and Industrial Relations

The genesis of labour law and practice can be traced to the 19th century when need arose for the colonial government to pass legislation to ensure adequate supply of cheap labour to service the emerging enterprises in agriculture, industry and in the service sector. Terms and conditions of employment were regulated by statutes and the common law. The law of contract in Kenya was originally based on the Contract Act, 1872, of India, which applied on contracts made or entered into before 1st of January 1961. The Indian Contract Act applied to the three countries Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda . Since then the Kenyan law of contract has been based on the English common law of contract, under the Kenyan Law of Contract Act (Cap. 23), section 2 (1). With industrialization, towards the middle of the 20th century, an organized trade union movement was well established. The first wage earners’ associations in Kenya can be traced back to the early 1940s and soon after the Second World War.


The first trade union regulation was made in the introduction of Ordinance No. 35 of 1939 that required all crafts organizations to apply for registration which they could be granted or denied depending on whether they had legitimate dealings consistent with government policy. The Ordinance also permitted any group of seven people to form a trade union and operate as one upon registration. Cancellation of registration under the Ordinance was not subject to appeal or open to question in a court of law (Aluchio 1998, 3).

In 1948, in order to gain complete hold on the wage earners organizations the government brought in a Trade Union Labour Officer, to be attached to the Labour Department with the duty to foster “responsible” unionism (Ananaba 1979, 3). In 1952 a more detailed piece of legislation was enacted for Trade Unions but again with significant omissions. It lacked necessary provisions for effective operation of trade unions. It did not legalize peaceful picketing or provide immunity against damages as a result of strikes. On the other hand, the government encouraged creation of staff associations and works committees since they fitted in its interests to confining workers’ organization to economic imperative alone and also lacked strike powers.

This rigid control of trade unions was maintained by the colonial government until the end. This notwithstanding, the movement was able to grow both in numerical strength and power. At independence the total number of following was about 155,000, 52 trade unions, with four centres formed and registered, namely, East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC), Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU), Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) and Kenya Africa Workers Congress (KAWC).

Industrial confrontation arose not merely from traditional trade union activities, but also from the movement’s political role in the struggle for freedom from colonial domination, particularly after individual political leaders had been arrested and placed in detention. On the threshold of independence however, both employers and trade unions, felt that it was vital for the infant nation to make economic process, that capital and labour should work together in harmony: the incidence of strikes and lockouts had to be drastically reduced.

As a result, in October 1962, a landmark was established with the signing of the Industrial Relations Charter by the government of Kenya, the Federation of Kenya Employers and the Kenya Federation of Labour, the forerunner of COTU (K), the Central Organisation Of Trade Unions (Kenya).

The Industrial Relations Charter spelt out the agreed responsibilities of management and unions and their respective obligations in the field of industrial relations, it defined a model recognition agreement as a guide to parties involved, and it set up a joint Dispute Commission.

The Industrial Relations Charter has been revised twice since then, but remained the basis for social dialogue and labour relations in Kenya throughout the years. Currently the “Charter” is under review again; the parties have already produced a draft Charter in 2001 that might be signed in the context of the overall Labour Law review. With the set up of an Industrial Court in 1964, one additional basic cornerstone was laid for the development of amicable conflict resolution in Kenya.

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