Mombasa - Hundreds of workers at east Africa's only oil refinery protested on Wednesday at the threatened closure of the facility, on Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline, and its possible conversion into a storage facility.
Fuel distributors have long complained about the poor quality products from the 50-year-old refinery in Mombasa and want it closed so they can buy cheaper and better imports from refineries of their choice.
Distributors say the plant is operating below its 35,000 barrels per day capacity and some have already threatened to boycott it. But under Kenyan law, they are obliged to buy fuel from the refinery run by India's Essar Energy, which co-owns the refinery with the Kenyan government.
Essar has said it wants to raise $1.2 billion for a substantial upgrade. But the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) has said the refinery could be converted for a different use, including a storage facility, if the proposed upgrade turns out to be too costly.
The report was due to be completed by end of May, but its findings have yet to be made public.
About 200 workers of an oil workers' union took part in the protest, refusing to report for the morning shift. They said their action would draw attention to the fact that their jobs could be lost should the plant be shut.
"We have written to the government demanding a clear explanation on what is happening, what will happen to our workers," said Raphael Olala, the coast branch secretary of the Kenya Petroleum Oil Workers Union.
"We are very much against that (closure of plant). The worst thing government can do to this economy is to allow the shutting down of the refinery," he added. It was not immediately clear if the protest would affect output at the plant.
Olala said a few workers in the plant's key departments remained on duty to ensure key parts of the facility run smoothly, saying their intention was not to cripple the plant.
Waving placards, the workers demanded the refinery's management and the ministry of energy inform them within 21 days of the decision on the future of the plant, warning that failure to do so would result in the issue of a strike notice.
"The refinery is our source of livelihood", one placard said.
"Where will you refine Turkana oil?" said another, in reference to an oil discovery in northern Kenya by Tullow Oil , whose commercial viability has not yet verified.