Kenya Airways workers went on strike on Friday morning, demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. Union workers, comprised of flight attendants, ground crews, engineers, and other staff, are demanding a 130 percent increase in wages.
The union has rejected an offer from the airline for an eight percent increase, which the airline has since upped to 13 percent. Current inflation in Kenya is at 18 percent a year.
Police have arrested a number of senior union officials and forced some employees to take up their positions to keep the airline operating.
Kenyan police arrested the general secretary of the Kenya Aviation and Allied Workers Union along with other union staff on Thursday evening. They were charged with holding illegal meetings, according to a union official.
Antony Chao, spokesman for the union’s Nairobi branch, says that the airline solicited the help of the Kenyan authorities to force some workers to their posts and keep flights operating.
“The company had sent out police escorts, and these are armed policeman who come in each and every [crew] transport,” he said. “So when picked up, each of the crew were actually escorted into the aircraft with armed policeman.”
Earlier this week, the nation’s Industrial Court issued a temporary ruling prohibiting the planned strike.
George Okoth, the union’s organizing secretary for Nairobi, called the strike a success despite failing to bring all the flights to a complete halt.
“Members have withdrawn their services, and right now the airline is paralyzed, operations have not been able to take place, they have canceled flights, and right now they have shortened their personnel to operate the flights that are there,” he said.
Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni offered a different synopsis of the situation, expressing confidence that the airline will not be shut down by the strike.
“The situation is serious but I cannot characterize it as very serious so far,” said Naikuni. “I mentioned that the flights that were due to leave, most of them have left. I do think that with the support we have from the rest of the staff, we will continue operating. We may have some delays for sure, I know that, but at least we are getting aircraft to leave.”
Ten percent of the airline’s workers are not unionized and are continuing voluntarily at their jobs.
Union officials accuse the airline of violating international safety standards by operating flights with reduced crew numbers.
Kenya airways is the second-largest airline in sub-Saharan Africa.