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Demands by tea pickers should not be allowed to kill the sector

By Billy Williams | May 9th 2018

The impact of austerity-era cuts is being felt across the country. Teachers, university lecturers, labourers in the private sector and several public servants are facing stagnant pay, delayed salaries and wages, and longer working hours. Younger workers have been hit hardest and, in some cases, are on reduced pay scales, facing low employment levels and struggling to make ends meet.

Against this backdrop, there is rising militancy among some trade unions and a growing appetite to reject productivity measures linked to negotiated pay deals.

In the case of tea pickers, there is still tension after the Court of Appeal reduced the 30 per cent increase in basic wages they were awarded for 2014 and 2015 by the Labour Court to 16 per cent, a few weeks ago. Tea pickers allied to the Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) will now get a 16 per cent hike for the 2014 and 2015 collective bargaining agreement.

Before the courts' intervention, there was palpable tension across the industry and fears that a protracted settlement would bring the sector down. Generally, players in the sector are grateful for the court ruling, which also gave directions on implementation of the new CBA.

That includes the many small-scale farmers who would have struggled to stay in business matching the higher rates. Unfortunately, the sector is not out of the woods yet. Negotiations on the 2016-2017 CBA are currently underway and there is a risk of going back to the protracted court process.

Umbrella union

The KPAWU, the country’s biggest umbrella union for tea pickers, is on record as having publicly opposed the court decision and vowing to continue pushing for higher wages in the sector. Such a move would be considered a repudiation of the agreement and if successful, would trigger financial losses for teacompanies already struggling to pay the 2014-2015 settlement, which although lower than union demands, was still very generous when compared to equivalent sectors.

Those making the case for higher figures in the 2016-2017 CBA have little appetite for a collective agreement. Their strategy is to secure a full implementation of an across-the-board change in employees’ terms and conditions at all costs. The outcome of this has been unnecessary bureaucracy and slowness when responding to the requirements and needs of the industry that sells to global markets, competing with players who do not face such pressure. Should this collapse the industry, the negative impact will be severe and will be felt for a long time.

There is urgent need for the Government to do more to address the volatility in the tea industry in line with the Big Four development agenda. Multi-nationals account for slightly over 40 per cent of Kenya’s teaoutput, almost exclusively employ the growing cadre of world-class trained agri-scientists in the industry, and have heavily invested in research and development. The huge, existing route-to-market infrastructure, port logistics, warehousing, brokers and tea tasters owe their existence to these multi-nationals.

Foreign exchange

Tea stands out as the leading foreign exchange earner in the country. In 2013, for example, teabrought home more than Sh114 billion, but recorded a significant decrease in 2014, when it recorded Sh101 billion.

The figures for 2015, 2016 and 2017 (Sh125 billion, Sh120 billion and Sh127 billion respectively) further indicate the impact that has catapulted the industry to the top position as the leading foreign exchange earner.

The figures constitute an astute cumulative contribution of 20 per cent to the economy under foreign exchange. Besides this, the industry has maintained the livelihoods of close to 650,000 Kenyans who directly earn their living from tea. The fact that the crop generates close to seven per cent of Kenyan GDP makes it a crucial factor to the success of the Big Four agenda.

It is estimated that up to four million Kenyans directly or indirectly derive their livelihoods from the teasector. That is more people than the unions represent, but whose livelihoods are threatened by any excessive demands and whose position as fellow Kenyans should be considered.

These figures are relevant in pointing out why there is need for stability in the tea sector if we are to recoup any losses and solidify gains. Unfortunately, only listening to one side whenever there is a dispute in the sector and implementation of the workers’ demands would easily devour all available resources, leading to a total shut-down.

In the past, such partisan moves have disproportionately benefited tea pickers. This is why it is necessary for the Government to step in and stop the downward spiral threatening to undo all the gains witnessed in the sector in recent times.

Mr Odongo comments on social issues; [email protected]

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