Inland railway transport in Uganda has been paralyzed after about 400 workers of the Rift Valley Railways Uganda (RVRU) laid down their tools, accusing the company of not paying their June and July salaries.
Rail services on the Kampala, Jinja, Iganga, Busembatia and Tororo stations has come to a standstill, with the trains currently grounded leaving the business community counting losses.
Companies such as Bidco Uganda Limited, Roofings, Inter Freight and several oil Companies which rely on the train for transport are now stranded. Passengers who use the Kampala-Namanve train to and from work on a daily basis have also been left stranded.
Some businessmen on Thursday said with the Kenyan general elections on the horizon, they want RVR that is headquartered in Kenya, to refund their money since their goods have not been delivered, arguing that their goods are ‘safer’ if they cross the borders before the elections.
According to Uganda Railways Workers’ Union general secretary Victor Byemaro, workers laid down their tools after going for two months without pay. They also want management to clarify on the issue of their Provident Fund. Provident fund is a form of social safety net into which workers must contribute a portion of their salaries and employers must contribute on behalf of their workers.
However, Mr Isaiah Okoth, the RVR Group CEO on Thursday said Ugandan workers have simply ‘boycotted’ from their workstations. He said: “Because the unions have stated that they did not call a strike and RVR management wasn’t notified as per labour laws, our position is that Uganda workers are not on strike but have boycotted work since June 26.”
According to Mr Okoth the delay in remitting June and July salaries was as a result of various RVR supplier court orders that required RVR to make additional payments that had not been budgeted for. This, he said, was further worsened by the poor cash collection by the RVR team.
“This model worked well until May 2017 when we received a letter from RVR team’s lawyers demanding the payment of all outstanding Provident Fund payments. We thereupon informed all RVRU staff members that payment of all outstanding Provident Fund payments would delay June salary payments, he explained.
While Mr Byemaro is adamant that they will only call off their strike once their grievances have been ‘satisfactorily met’, Mr Okoth thinks otherwise. “Since RVR team hasn’t been able to collect outstanding payments from Uganda clients, we have had to redirect cash from other activities to ensure that RVRU employees receive at least one month salary. We are hopping RVRU team will get back to work at the earliest opportunity, deliver goods to our key clients quickly, collect additional cash and thus enable us to process July salary payments,” he countered.
In 2011, RVR workers went on a sit-down strike demanding a salary increment and payment of their arrears dating back to five years.
In 2012, more than 700 workers began a sit down strike following threats by management to lay off 200 employees allegedly without abiding to the terms agreed upon with the Uganda Railway Workers Union Members collective bargaining agreement.
In 2016, over 500 employees went on a sit-down strike citing unfair treatment and arbitrary dismissal of workers.