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Tea plucking machines leave women jobless

By Nikko Tanui | December 4th 2020
By Nikko Tanui | December 4th 2020


Workers use a tea plucking machine at a tea farm in Nandi Hills, Nandi County. A new reports say many women have lost their jobs since tea picking was mechanised in Kenya. [File, Standard]

About 30,000 women in South Rift have lost their jobs in multinational tea farms due to increased mechanisation of the production process, a new report has said.

The United Kingdom-based companies, among them Unilever, James Finlays and George Williamson, employ 80,000 tea workers on the their vast tea plantations across Kericho and Bomet counties.

The report, Labour and Economic Rights of Women Workers in the South Rift Tea Zones, and which was commissioned by the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida), describes the gender effect of using tea plucking machines as “spectacular”.

“Increased automation, mechanisation and general use of machines in the production process puts a large number of women out of employment and going by the current trends, it will also replace women with fewer men manning machines in tea farms and factories,” reads the report.

Handling and operating machines has over the years been dominated by men, especially due to the physical strength involved.

“Women have, however, shown that they are able to perform a number of physically exacting tasks around the farms with as much success,” the report, authored by Andrew Odete, Mary Kambo and James Okoth, says.

The report further notes that most of the women working in the multinational tea farms (at least 31.5 per cent) are between the ages of 30-35. They are followed by those in the 35-40 age bracket (28.8 per cent) while those between 25-30 are 21.9 per cent.

“The implication of enhanced mechanisation is potentially grave with the likelihood of massive loss of jobs being the biggest concern,” reads the report.

Most of the tea farms estimate the cost of labour to be half of the production cost. The tea farms have over the years been embroiled in court cases with Kenya Tea Plantations and Agricultural Workers Union over the implementation of a Collective Bargain Agreement between them.


Mechanisation inevitable

As the battle rages on, the firms have increasingly adopted mechanisation in production, particularly tea plucking, which has traditionally been done by hand.

Apollo Kiari from the Kenya Tea Growers Association argued that increased mechanisation was inevitable if tea producers were to remain competitive “in an otherwise volatile tea market considering Kenya’s competitors in the value chain have adopted mechanisation”.

“Better production will lead to significantly smaller but better-paid workforce,” he said. Tea pluckers currently earn around Sh12,000 monthly.

The International Labour Organisation proposes recognition of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning that enables people acquire skills, re-skill and up-skill.

“This will require increased investment in institutional policies and strategies to support people through transformative transitions at the work-place. Workers will need expanded choices to enable them to remain economically active through the increasing number of labour market transitions over the course of their lives,” reads the report.

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