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Court ruling puts tea pickers' jobs at risk

By Kamau Muthoni | February 2nd 2021
By Kamau Muthoni | February 2nd 2021

Workers pruning tea (PHOTO: Phillip Orwa)

Thousands of tea pickers are likely to lose their jobs after the High Court cleared a tea company's move to mechanise tea picking.

Justice James Makau declared that Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd had the right to adopt new technology, affirming a Court of Appeal decision against the Kenya Plantations and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). The union was seeking a ban on tea harvesting machines.

“In view of the aforesaid and as agreed by both petitioner’s and respondent’s counsel, I find as decided in the Court of Appeal decision hereinabove, the petitioner has a right to mechanise and adopt technology in its operations,” ruled Makau.

"The matter in dispute is therefore effectively concluded and settled in terms herein above stated."

It is the second loss for tea pickers after the Court of Appeal in 2018 cleared the way for tea firms to sack thousands of tea workers who boycotted work to protest the introduction of mechanised tea picking.

The appellate court judges faulted the Employment and Labour Relations Court for issuing orders in favour of the workers when there was another suit filed by Unilever Tea on the same that had not been adjudicated.

“Had the learned judge taken into consideration that there was in force an order of the High Court that prohibited the strike despite which the union and its employees appear to have gone ahead with the strike, the judge would no doubt have declined to grant the orders that he did,” the Court of Appeal said in its ruling.

The two lower courts had issued conflicting orders, with the High Court blocking tea workers' union officials from calling the strike. On the other hand, union officials obtained orders from the Labour Relations Court, blocking Unilever from sacking employees who had downed their tools.

In a battle that has been in the courts since October 14, 2010, the union argued that employers failed to take advantage of the notice period to initiate dialogue and had resorted to intimidating union employees for participating in the strike.

The case by the union, also against Eastern Produce Kenya, was filed five days before the date set by the High Court to hear the other application.

But the stalemate did not end there. Unilever went back to the High Court seeking an order to commit tea workers’ union officials for contempt.

It also filed an application before the Employment and Labour Relations Court seeking to strike out the case filed by the union.

The two warring parties went for reconciliation talks but failed to agree on a return-to-work formula. Unilever again moved to the Labour Court to have the orders set aside, but the court extended its orders instead.

The two sides blamed the lower courts for the stalemate before Court of Appeal Judges Phillip Waki, Roslyn Nambuye and Gatembu Kairu.

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