Counties row with tea firms over land rates now boils over

Tea firms in Kericho. The tea firms say the hike in land rates is likely to hurt their business. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]
For years, the export of tea has remained one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners. Last year, the country earned Sh140 billion from the crop, up from the Sh129 billion it earned in 2017.

But despite the impressive earnings attributed to increased export volumes coupled with a stable exchange rate and diversification of markets, the tea industry, especially in Kericho and Bomet counties, is facing turbulence.

In the latest assault against multinational tea companies, Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony directed his lands executive Barnabas Ng’eno to start charging the firms Sh10,000 per acre for the land they lease for 99 years.

According to the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) Chief Executive Officer Apollo Kiarii, the United Kingdom-based tea firms have been paying Sh1,260 per acre of land per annum.

But Dr Chepkwony insisted that the firms have been paying Sh300. “The land department is, therefore, directed to move with speed and immediately effect the new land rates which are Sh10,000 per acre of land per year,” said the county boss.

The county government’s decision to hike land rates is buoyed by the National Land Commission’s (NLC) Historical Land Injustice Committee chaired by Dr Samuel Tororei which determined that large tracts of land were unlawfully taken from the Kipsigis and Talai by the colonial government.

The land ought to have been surrendered to the group at independence.

To remedy the situation, Dr Tororei’s committee recommended that a fresh survey and audit be undertaken for land allocated to multinational companies in Kericho and Bomet counties.

“Any land in excess of the size documented in official records should be reverted back to the County Governments of Bomet and Kericho to be held in trust on behalf of the residents of the two counties. The land shall be used for public purpose,” reads the NLC’s landmark recommendations in part.

The panel comprised of NLC members Emma Njogu, Dr Rose Musyoka and Dr Clement Lenachuru who also recommended that the multi-national tea firm and the State pay victims for the loss of use of land from 1902.

“Rates and rents for land occupied by multinational and other tea companies should also be enhanced so as to benefit the county governments of Kericho and Bomet and the national government,” also read the NLC document.

Looming suit

But Kiarii said the commercial land sale rates differ from the valuation list for the purposes of charging land rates.

“When the time comes and the county government wants to conduct land valuation roll, it should be done professionally using the right mechanism and formulae for the value of the land for each geographical region,” he said.

As the county requires the multinational tea companies to dig deeper into their pockets for the land rates, 9,345 Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union members from Kericho and Bomet county have registered themselves for the unions’ looming suit against the firms.

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) recently contracted Ozon Solicitors to sue multinational tea firms in an international court for violating workers’ rights.

Cotu Secretary-General Francis Atwoli said the companies have refused to implement Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) with the workers for the last five years. “This international law firm from Manchester will work hand in hand with our lawyers to pursue this issue soon so that our workers can secure their rights, and also for these multinational companies to acknowledge us as a union,” he said.

Mr Atwoli said efforts by both Cotu and agricultural unions to fight their case in Kenyan labour relations courts have hit a snag following petitions by the companies.

“We have won several cases but these companies challenge them in court. They move from the high court to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, where cases drag as workers continue to suffer,” he said.

Michael Ozon of UK law firm, Ozon Solicitors, said a simple analysis of the evidence they had gathered, implicated the multinational tea companies.

According to the solicitor’s statistics, 4,800 workers from James Finlay had since registered themselves of the case making them the leading complainers.

Some 2,500 workers from Unilever Tea Company follow the group while 1,200 workers from Sotik highlands and 845 George Williamson employees have also registered for the suit.

Besides preparing to sue tea firm for failing to implement the CBA, they also want compensation for injuries sustained while using tea processing and harvesting machines.

But Mr Kiarii termed Cotu’s decision as a publicity stunt.

“The court case has nothing to do with local labour and industrial relations systems,” he said.

The KTGA boss said multinationals had complied with the eight per cent salary increment the workers had been awarded by the Court of Appeal in February last year.

“In any case, the Kenyan tea producers which are the largest tea producers are way ahead of any other agricultural operators in the country in terms of paying wages and in providing tea workers welfare amenities,” he said.

Kiarii dismissed claims that there were scores of tea pluckers who had been injured by tea plucking machines, noting that the Ministry of Labour, through the Occupational Health and Safety department ensures safety in the tea plantations.

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