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More than just a gathering storm in Kenya's tea cup

By | October 19th 2010

By Vitalis Kimutai

To first-time visitors in Kericho and adjoining highlands of Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii, the well-trimmed tea bushes, dotted with pickers with extended baskets, is a sight to behold.

The visions of tea-pickers have been revised somewhat; the baskets have been replaced with gadgets that are pulled by two pickers hauling select leaves into its storage space.

But this calm view of the tea plantations is deceptive; the low hum of the tea-picking machines has been replaced by angry shouts that hit a crescendo Monday, as workers protested unemployment accelerated by machine use.

Workers at James Finlays Tea Estate operate a tea plucking machine, which has been blamed for job losses, triggering a workers’ strike. [PHOTO: VITALIS KIMUTAI/STANDARD]

Some 50,000 tea pluckers in the tea estates spread across Kericho, Bomet, Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii counties protesting the mechanisation of picking green leaf were expected to participate in the labour protest, although its success appeared partial.

The strike was called by Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) yesterday, and whose members work in tea estates under the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA).

The affected companies are James Finlays Tea Kenya, Unilever Tea Kenya, George Williamsons, Sotik Tea and Eastern Produce, among others.

Mechanical Plucking

In 2006, when Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) first called tea pickers’ strike to protest mechanisation, the area under mechanical plucking consisted of 694 hectares or 2.3 per cent of the total area under tea in the association’s 42 members estates, which has 30,000 hectares.

Then, James Finlay had 600 hectares under mechanised production, Unilever had 54 hectares while Sotik Tea had 32 hectares.

"We have tried to reason with the multinational tea companies over the issue but they have refused to listen. The only way out for us is to let workers down their tools," said Issa Wafula, KPAWU assistant secretary general

KPAWU national treasurer Joshua Oyuga said tea pickers earn Sh6.97 per kilogramme while, factory workers earn Sh250 a day. Oyuga further claimed thousands of workers had been laid off by the companies in the region.

"They are sacking workers on very flimsy grounds in order to pave the way for mechanisation, while those who are retiring are not replaced," Oyuga said.

Tea-picking machines were first introduced ten years ago, amid protests from labour officials.

"The purchasing power of the workers has been eroded," Oyuga said, adding that school children have dropped out of school as things got tough for their parents.

Employment Matters

Tom Okinda, a worker at a multinational tea company in Kericho County said favouritism, tribalism and nepotism were rife in employment tea plucking machine operators.

"Those retained are relatives, friends or neighbours of senior managers who have the final say in employment matters, while those who do not have any connection with the management are laid off," he claimed.

Hellen Tangi, a businesswoman, said there were days when it was prestigious for one to work for a multinational tea firm as some of the unskilled jobs offered a good pay.

But not anymore.

"Despite raking in millions from the fertile farms, these foreigners do not care about locals working for them," she lamented. Francis Atwoli, the Cotu Secretary General said mechanisation in the tea industry should be discouraged, as it was not good for the economy of developing countries like Kenya.

"The direct and multiplier effect of mechanisation of tea plucking and pruning in the country outweighs the implied cost-savings that employers are claiming," Atwoli said.

Atwoli further claimed introduction of machines compromised the quality of tea thus affecting the overall auction prices. "Quality of tea is bound to drop with use of the machines since selective plucking of two leaves and a bud will not be adhered to as should be the case," Atwoli said.


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