Interview with Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union, Joseph Ndiritu

Nairobi Planning Innovations recently spent some time with Joe Ndiritu, Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union and matatu expert. We asked him to share some of his insights into the sector from a driver’s point of view.

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Joe Ndiritu discusses issues in the matatu sector with students from MIT and University of Nairobi

NPI: How did you get into the matatu sector?

I joined the matatu sector while still at school at a tender age of 14 years. Back then, matatus were being operated by young ones and you could hardly see an old or aged person working as a conductor. That was in the year 1990 and peer influence drove me to the sector as it was by then. Today, it has grown to be an industry controlling billions of shillings . Before joining the matatu sector then, you were vetted by the senior workers in the industry and we used to pay royalties to them. When you were new in the industry you were branded names such as njuka, kamande, ka-fala, fariso, ndemwa, mgeni etc, and names according to the route you operated on. It was a form of “monolization” or initiation, which I later on came to learn was to instill “discipline” in the sector;  you were supposed to respect your elder workmates and society (neighbours & passengers) who were friendly to the matatu.

NPI: What are the main problems you face as a matatu driver?

The main problems I face as a matatu driver are brought about by corruption of some state departments that regulate the industry. These state departments are directly involved in the daily activities conducted in the matatu industry, and others are indirectly involved. The state department that hinders the growth and development of matatu workers is the police department which is supposed to serve and protect lives and property. It is this department that harasses matatu workers, intimidates and demands and coerces for bribes. Police instill fear in matatu workers, mostly because most workers do not understand the Traffic Act which the police enforce.

 

County inspectorate askaris also harass transport workers when enforcing by-laws. Many of these by-laws we do not understand or have access to. Some are outdated and do not conform to the demands of cities and urban centres.

Another issue is with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) which has allowed cartels to collect illegal tax on matatu workers, and we end up paying a lot in illegal taxes rather than what we would have paid the taxman. KRA has mechanisms to address this issues and collect tax from matatu workers in the form of pay as you earn (PAYE) or income tax or any other form of tax that would work in the sector. 70% of matatu workers have a Personal Identification Number (P.I.N) and have at least an employer who is supposed to remit tax to KRA.

 

We also wish the labour department would help us. It is supposed to advise other state departments, inform, educate and enforce labour laws and related matters. They have totally ignored the transport industry in Kenya or have not been engaged by the state. The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) is desperately trying to address labour issues affecting matatu workers without the input of labour department.

 

Another problem I face as a matatu worker (driver) is when my colleagues overlap in traffic or when they are arrested and coerced to give bribes. It makes me feel that I am part of that problem collectively, and it paints a bad picture of me as an empowered matatu driver.

 

There is a health problem that we have as drivers and is not spoken about. This problem is back pain and headache that is an effect of long driving hours and most drivers abuse a pain relieving drug called Diclofenac  because of lack of medical cover. We also have pneumonia that is associated with exposure to extreme cold and poor air quality and has killed many of our drivers and conductors. Another health problem is H.I.V. Despite national campaigns, matatu workers have not undergone sensitization seminars, hence exposing them to the dangers of the epidemic.

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Poor air quality and other public health problems impact matatu drivers

Bad roads, goods roads and poorly maintained vehicles are also a main problem to most drivers. Bad roads and poorly maintained vehicles increase risk of crashes but good roads can also cause problems. Most drivers have not undergone refresher courses or defensive driving courses despite improvements on road infrastructure. Our employers and governments have not invested in us (workers) in terms of facilitating improved learning through such courses.

 NPI: Tell us about the Public Transport Operators Union that you chair. What are you aims and why should the public support your efforts?

Public Transport Operators Union (PUTON) is a trade union registered in Kenya under the Labour Relations Act of 2007 to represent the interest of informal transport workers in Kenya. It was registered on 12/02/2013 through a court order after the registrar of trade unions in Kenya had initially refused to register the organization. Informal transport workers in Kenya are estimated (yes estimated) to be 300,000 of which 200,000 work directly as drivers and conductors and the 100,000 are indirect workers.

Our aims are found and elaborated in our union’s constitution.

They include but are not limited to:

 
To provide a basis for the establishment of sound traditions, good culture and fair solutions to disputes.
 
➢ To promote, improve and develop responsibility, interests and aspects of life and contribute towards a healthy social life among workers.
 
➢ To provide and avail means to the workers for expression, views and decisions upon matters affecting the interests of the public transport industry.
 
➢ To participate in all matters calculated to lead to the improvement of the matatu transport and to promote the establishment of a system suitable for our unique system of public transport.
 

➢ To provide effective representation of matatu operators in the government, National Transport Authority, Public/Private organizations/institutions, NGO’s or any recognized agency where such representation may be required.

The public should support our efforts because we need a win-win situation where all stakeholders are responsible enough for their actions when providing service. Matatu drivers have been for a very long time been on the receiving end because of being voiceless.

NPI:  What improvements in the routes and passenger services would you like to see implemented and how can matatu drivers help push for these changes?

  • Route re-design on the existing framework that will also lead to people shifting residence to far areas outside the city centre e.g. Thika, Ruiru, Mavoko, Limuru etc.
  • Allocation of new routes within the city and combining some routes to give better services. This means that some existing routes will become obsolete.
  • Public safety e.g. by not carrying excess load and passengers
  • Conducive working environment will improve service delivery
  • Devolving public transport to county level.

NPI:  What do you think the government could do to build a more cooperative relationship with the matatu sector?

  • Engage all stakeholders in transport
  •  Improve infrastructure
  •  Invest in policies that will guide the future of the matatu industry e.g. up to the year 2030 and beyond when we shall have an improved transport system.

This policy must take into account the interests of informal transport workers together with the potential of loss of livelihood, especially with the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit system which is being promoted by the World Bank, Matatu Owners Association and others.

NPI: What is your vision for transportation for Nairobi?

My vision for Nairobi’s transportation is a mass transport system, because the city is developing so fast and has become the hub for doing business in the region. Many international organizations are setting their regional offices in Nairobi, and our transport will need to accommodate the middle/working class. There should be a public transport system to accommodate this class and encourage the use of public transport alongside other modes of transport e.g. Non Motorized Transport. Otherwise if P.S.V/matatus don’t change with time, then there might be a death knell in the industry (e.g. like the current case of taxis and UBER), just the same way the telephone booth died with the introduction of cellphones in Kenya.