Bus politics in Dar es Salaam

Abdallah S. Lubala
Michaela Collord

The secretary of a Tanzanian bus drivers' union explains why the system of privately owned commercial buses is breaking down. He proposes collective ownership.

Daladalas in Dar es Salaam. Image credit Niklas Nilsson Kreü via Flickr (CC).

On 5 May 2015, there was a countrywide bus drivers’ strike in Tanzania, led by drivers in Dar es Salaam. The aim was to pressure the government to protect drivers’ welfare. Government responded by establishing a special committee under the Prime Minister, Mizengo Pinda, tasked with addressing issues relating to the transport sector.

The primary responsibility of that committee was to research and analyze problems in the transport sector, and to find solutions. Among the grievances of the striking drivers was their lack of employment contracts, which would define the payment of salaries, allowances, vacation time, healthcare and other entitlements. These concerns were all captured through the call for “employment contracts,” which remained drivers’ principal demand.

In addition to this, drivers contested how their work was perceived. The work of a driver was not valued on a par with so-called productive labor, which contributes directly to the country’s economy. Drivers therefore demanded that transport be recognized as a key sector that contributes to the national income.

The Prime Minister’s committee ordered drivers to create a trade union because the government does not negotiate with voluntary associations. The drivers’ strike of May 2015 was led by the Tanzania Association of Bus Drivers (UWAMATA), as in, a voluntary association. Roughly two months after the committee issued its order, drivers had registered their union, called Tanzania Drivers Workers’ Union (TADWU).

It was after registering this union that the real trouble began. According to the relevant national laws and regulations, for a union to get new members, it must write a letter of request to the employer, from whom it then must get permission to enter a workplace and start registering members. The law accords the owner 30 days to consider whether to accept or reject the union’s request. Should the employer not respond to the union, then the law directs the union to open a case in the Labor Court. In Court, there is a general culture of “come today, come tomorrow” and many excuses from the employers’ lawyers, aimed at slowing down the progress of a case. This was indeed the start of drivers’ problems. Their unions took four or five months to get drivers. And if a driver joined a given union, which was a thorn in the side of his employer, then that was the end of his employment.

The objectives behind the creation of the Prime Minister’s committee have yet to be fulfilled as the Committee has not been able to resolve the drivers’ grievances. Drivers have thus been left like orphans. We are not listened to because we do not pay tax to the government. But not paying our tax is the government’s own fault as, up to now, it has failed to force employers to offer drivers formal employment such that the government can collect tax.

Because the government has failed to secure contracts for drivers, they are not paid a regular salary. Many are paid only a small allowance. Many drivers do not have employment contracts officially recognized by the government. Even those who do, their contracts are only decorative because there are no government institutions to oversee proper enforcement.

The owner of commercial vehicles treats a driver like a mere tool for making profit without caring about the driver’s remuneration, what he needs to live. Take the example of a bus driver who does the route from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza. The price of a Dar-Mwanza ticket is 40 thousand shillings ($17). A bus that carries 60 passengers brings in Sh2,400,000 ($1040). You then subtract the expenses associated with the journey, including about 350 litres of gas, costing Sh700,000, and the levy collected at bus terminals by large towns, a total of Sh34,000. The allowance left for the driver is Sh40,000. As there are two drivers, they will be paid a total of Sh80,000. Additional expenses include Sh30,000 for the conductor, Sh20,000 for the “ton boy” or mechanic. The ticket agent gets 10 percent of the overall sum, so Sh240,000. Therefore, the total expenses of the bus owner come to Sh1,104,000. These are the costs of running his operation. But we can estimate that perhaps they exceed this amount, so round up to Sh1,200,000.

If you take the total income, equal to Sh2,400,000, and then subtract the expenses, equal to Sh1,200,000, you are left with Sh1,200,000 ($520), which is the daily profit going to the bus owner. So, every day, the owner of a bus going to Mwanza gets a profit of Sh1,200,000 whereas the driver of that very same bus is paid Sh40,000 ($17). And we have yet even to consider the goods transported by bus, which are another major source of profit for the owner.

Bus owners are big tax avoiders, with many not paying tax at all. Even those who do, their tax estimates are very low such that they might as well not pay tax. Meanwhile, the Sh40,000 going to the driver must cover his food and accommodation en route while also serving as his salary because many drivers do not get a salary but instead depend on their allowance alone. Even those who are lucky enough to be paid a salary, the monthly rate they get paid isn’t more than Sh200,000 ($87), which is very low in the transport sector.

Aside being exploited by his employer, the driver is also exploited by various government institutions, like the traffic police who insist that infractions that are the fault of the bus owner be paid for by the driver. Violations committed by drivers are handled under the Road Traffic Act while violations committed by the bus owners are under the Transport Licensing Act. But government authorities make the driver bear responsibility for all these faults, and thus rob him of even the little earnings he gets.

The authorities are determined to finish off a driver with the kinds of punishments they issue. Let’s take speeding-related penalties as an example. Drivers are legally required to stay under 80km/hr. According to the Road Traffic Act, the penalty for exceeding the speed limit is Sh30,000. Many upcountry buses have been fitted with a vehicle tracking system that registers if the vehicle is speeding. But the authorities often let a driver continue speeding for more than a month and then present him with a month’s worth of accumulated penalties.

A driver can be confronted with more than two million shillings per month. That same driver, whose salary does not exceed Sh200,000 per month (and even that he is not paid), where will he get the two million to cover the fines? These fines have lost all meaning; their purpose is to generate revenue for the government and not to prevent traffic violations. In other words, as drivers, we have been saying, if truly the government aims to prevent buses from speeding, then it should fit them with a speed governor and not a vehicle tracking system.

Once you take all this into account, you realize that those with power are the owners of the commercial buses that we, the drivers, drive.  It follows that the only way to liberate the Tanzanian driver is for us, the drivers, to start our own cooperative union so that we can own our own buses through the cooperative. Through collective ownership, we will be able to pay ourselves a decent wage, secure all associated entitlements and pay the government its share of tax.

But since passenger buses are very costly and drivers—even collectively—cannot afford them, especially while not earning a proper salary, the government should experiment with lending the drivers’ cooperative at least 50 buses. We are ready to pay back the debt day-by-day using the profit earned from the buses. Given our experience in the transport sector, we will have paid back the loan within a short period of time, and the bus cooperative will be a model of ownership and economic management in this country.

There is another advantage to cooperative ownership of buses. We, the drivers, know each other, so it is easy to hold ourselves and each other to account. No driver will speed because of pressure from the owner, who requires drivers to make a certain profit each day and, failing that, denies the driver his day’s earnings. If we own the buses ourselves, the driver will not be pressured to speed and endanger his life and those of his passengers simply to fulfill the wishes of the owner. This is because he will have a suitable salary. He will take care of the bus he drives as it brings him a better life.

Private sector ownership is a ticking time bomb, a danger to the lives of passengers and to the lives of the drivers transporting them. This system of private ownership of commercial buses is breaking down, and this due to the lack of employment contracts to protect the welfare of drivers, the bad traffic laws, and government institutions serving the interests of bus owners. Finally, when there is an accident, the driver is the one blamed for everything even though it is the government that abandoned the driver.

In his final presidential campaign speech in 2015, President John Magufuli assured that he was familiar with the problems of drivers, and he promised that he would address them once in office. Since taking office, he has already tackled the problems of other exploited groups, like the street hawkers, cashew farmers, farmers dispossessed of their land, and more. We congratulate him for those interventions. But we humbly request that he also attend to the transport sector to solve the problems of the marginalized and exploited there, namely us, the drivers. Our call is for him to help us access loans to buy buses for our cooperative, and thus, we will make our contribution to the national goal, Tanzania’s transformation into an industrial economy.

This country’s industrial economy will be built by drivers because it is us who hold together the entire transport sector, moving everything from agricultural produce and manufactured goods to the people themselves. If control of this sector is placed in the hands of drivers, through a bus cooperative, then the government’s tax revenues will increase and the private income of the drivers themselves will also grow.

The solution to road accidents, the answer to lackluster government revenue collection, and the way to ensure a good life for those who toil and sweat is collective ownership.

The English version of this article uses masculine third person pronouns when referring to drivers. Swahili pronouns are gender neutral, but when translating into English, it was agreed that masculine pronouns worked best, a reflection of the overwhelming male dominance of driving as a profession in Tanzania. That said, there is a small minority of female drivers, whose contribution should not be forgotten.

This article forms part of an initiative with Sauti ya Ujamaa (Voice of Socialism) to amplify grassroots voices on Africa is a Country. The original post was dictated by the author in Swahili, transcribed by Sabatho Nyamsenda and published in the bi-weekly Tanzanian newspaper, Raia Mwema (Good Citizen).

About the Translator

Michaela Collord is a PhD candidate at Oxford University.

Further Reading