Taxi app companies exploiting rising individualism to hamper industrial action in Kenya

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I almost got lynched by a mob of Taxi drivers on Tuesday. Taxi app drivers have been on strike since Monday. They want fair pricing from Uber, Taxify, Little and other service providers.

However, some drivers have not been taking part in the strike, which means that they are sabotaging the efforts of their companions. As part of their mass action, the striking drivers have been flagging down other operating cabs, removing the passengers from the cars and forcing the rogue driver to join the cause.

In a few cases, vehicles of non-compliant drivers were vandalised, leading to millions in damages. My brief encounter with the angry drivers, however, was not because I was a passenger, but because my journalistic instincts led me to start filming some drivers roughing up their colleague just outside my house. The drivers mobbed me and demanded that I delete the footage.

Luckily, I talked them out of their outrage and they calmed down enough to even engage me in friendly banter. I was curious about their grievances and they were happy to have one more pair of ears to vent at. The drivers explained that beyond the grievances with the low pay, they are also not happy with the fact that many of their colleagues don’t seem to be taking the strike seriously.

One driver argued that these “wasaliti” (betrayers) are unwilling to sacrifice a few days’ income and yet they will still benefit from the fruits of the striking drivers’ labor.

“It is very unfair. Do they think that we are fools parking our cars and choosing not to work? We are grow men and many of us here have families. It is bad enough that these app-owners are taking advantage of us, we cannot allow these rogue elements to get away with it,” said one driver who did not want to be named.

His sentiments bring to surface a worrying trend in recent mass actions in Kenya. There is a rising individualism that is eroding the sense of comradeship that is often the ethos behind industrial mass action. Little wonder last year former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero could boldly say he would not pay doctors who had taken part of the 100-day strike. He had observed that some doctors were willing to let self-interest outweigh the collective good of fighting the system.

This card has also been used by the national government on several occasions when it threatened to withhold pay from those who took part in industrial action. The unspoken implication is that the government understands that self-interest will sabotage mass action, despite contrary efforts by union leaders.

Employers have long known that class consciousness and organization amongst the workers is a powerful weapon in the fight against the aggressive anti-labor politics of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, employees who seem enthusiastic about labor union activities are often targeted and discriminated against in the form of wage cuts and reduced benefits. It doesn’t help that social media has made it easier for employers to pinpoint which workers are taking part in industrial action.

In situations where the employers have such a tight hold on the modern means of production such as the online-taxi business, you end up with a strange situation whereby the employer also “owns” the customers. This is a strange phenomenon especially in the taxi business in Kenya where those who go into it often regard themselves as “self-employed”.

Such incidences as the “unjust” pricing reveal that this business that was once the domain of self-employment is no different from being employed by a boss who neither cares about your individual welfare nor is threatened by your attempts at collective action.

This rising individualism in Kenya’s industrial action scene is worrying. It is both a product of shifting economic dynamics and an apparent lack of foresight in our embrace of these seemingly “life-changing” technological business solutions. Something needs to give. I wish our cab drivers all the best in their challenging but noble fight.

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