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Machines are marching in whether or not Mr Atwoli likes it

COMMENTARY
By | October 21st 2010

By Kipkirui K’Telwa

The decision by tea labourers affiliated to the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) to protest against the ongoing mechanisation of tea production is misplaced.

Even the fact that the Constitution gives them the right to protest is abuse of Bill of rights.

Since the twin advents of industrial and agrarian revolutions, machines have always replaced human labour with devastating effects, but mankind has learn to come to terms with it.

When faxing machines came, governments were reluctant to send messengers home. But who needs the messenger to deliver a memo when there is e-mail and intranet?

More quarry and construction jobs were lost when explosives and earthmoving machines descended on the quarries as construction industry soared. But more skilled and specialised personnel took over jobs that emerged from the revolution.

How many axe- and panga-wielding workers lost their jobs when men with power saws descended on timber-generating forests? How many messengers, tea girls/boys, typists, secretaries and even gardeners lost their jobs when firms installed tea and water dispensers or outsourced services? Therefore, the contempt shown this small, motorised machine, operated by two people to pluck tea bushes should be toned down.

Mechanised tea plucking is fast, hence labourers can work for shorter periods of time, yet earn more income and use the extra time to either rest or engage in other income-generating chores. Many times, mechanised tea plucking ends by 11am.

For job losses

While a worker who is housed, provided with water, security, schools and other social amenities can pluck an average of 50kg of green tea leaves per day, a single tea-plucking machine, operated by two people under optimum conditions, can pluck up to 3,000kg of green leaves.

This means one machine can replace 60 people.

The workers’ argument that machine-plucked tea is of poor quality is hollow. It is not the worker, but the master, who determines the quality and even quantity of tea to be produced. Workers are paid per kilogramme of green tea leaves plucked not per quality of tea processed.

Two years ago, Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli urged tea workers to burn machines if plantation owners went ahead and introduced them. Should bank tellers also burn ATMs to save their jobs?

In my opinion, the phased introduction of machines should serve as the unofficiall notice to labourers to brace themselves for job losses as happened to quarry workers when earthmovers reached them.

Therefore, instead of resisting technological change and innovation, unionists should be encouraging their members to buy machines and seek jobs in the same companies.

The desire to process value-added products like green tea, meet demands in competitive global market, reduce the ever-rising cost of production and mitigate against high wage bill motivated many tea firms to resort to mechanisation.

Experts say green leaf should be processed within one hour of plucking, and plucking should go on until 11am on sunny days and at night.

James Finlay boasts of a Sh1.4 billion instant tea factory that operates 24 hours a day. Because it is not possible to handpick tea manually at night, the firm introduced machines to ensure the factory is operational.

Harvesters and earthmovers

Moisture content of green tea leaves, topography of the farm and the tea clones planted for the production of value-added teas inform mechanisation.

I agree with former Kenya Tea Growers’ Association chairman Titus Korir that a sustained campaign against the machines is wasted effort that would not help the labourer. KPAWU has never had problems with combine harvesters in wheat farms or earthmovers in the construction industry.

May be Kenya needs a national mechanisation policy.

The writer is a Sub-Editor with The Standard Online Editions.

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