As we celebrate Labour Day, we wish to celebrate one of Kenya’s pioneer Trade Unionists who spent the better years of his youth fighting for the rights of African workers.
Born in 1917 in Nairobi, Fred Polworth Kibuthu Kubai first worked as a telegrapher at East Africa Posts and Telecommunications after his education at Buxton Baptist School in Mombasa. In 1945, at the age of 28, he was posted to Rongai and then Nakuru Post office.
He, however, worked for only one year in Nakuru before he resigned citing job discrimination against black employees. Thus started his journey in trade unionism 15 years working for posta.
Immediately after his resignation, Fred Kubai joined the trade union movement so he could assist fellow workers to achieve equality at the workplace. The mistreatment of the blacks at their places of work is what led Kubai to join the African Workers Federation Union where he became an official. By 1949, he had managed to unite all the registered trade unions in Kenya under the Trade Union Trade Centre.
His activities agitating for the rights of black workers put Kubai in a direct collision with the colonial settlers who were the majority of employers. In 1950, he led a hugely successfully boycott against a royal charter that would have made Nairobi a city. He argued that landowners within and around Nairobi area were not compensated for their land losses.
To keep him out of circulation, Fred Kubai was arrested and accused of the murder of alderman Muchohi Gikonyo. After a 9 months trial, Kubai was acquitted and he returned to his activism with renewed zeal.
In addition to mobilizing for blacks to join the trade union movement, Kubai was at the same time mobilizing for membership to the only black political party, the Kenya African Union (KAU). He was elected the Nairobi branch chairman for KAU in 1951 and also the National Vice-Chair.
On 20th October 1952, Fred Kubai was among those arrested in operation Jack Scott together with five others who have since been nicknamed the “Kapenguria Six.” The six were initially confined in Lodwar before he was transferred to Kabarnet in 1960. He stayed there until the 25th of March 1961 when he was released and put on house arrest for six months.
Kubai rejoined the trade union movement immediately he was released from the house arrest in 1962. He was appointed as a director to the Kenya Federation of Labour and played a role in the writing of the 1962 Industrial Relations Charter.
With independence, Fred Kubai was elected the first MP for Nakuru East which was comprised of the present-day Naivasha and Gilgil constituencies. As an MP, he was also appointed to the cabinet serving as the Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Labour and Social Services. In his second term as MP between 1983 and 1988, he served as an Assistant Minister in the office of the President. He retired from public service in 1988.
Fred Kubai died on 1st June 1996. He had lived such a secluded live after retirement that it was only after four days that his death was reported in the media. Thus ended the life of a career trade unionist.