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Destitute Mumias Sugar workers hang on to hope

Japheth Eruzu, a former employee of Mumias Sugar Factory suffered a stroke after losing his job when the company collapsed. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Japheth Eruzu is glued to a corner seat in one of the 3,000 houses at the Booker Estate, which is owned by the Mumias Sugar Company.

He worries where his next meal will come from now that the revival of the debt-ridden sugar mill seems just a dream.

“I cannot get out of the company house; where will I go?” says Eruzu, who worked as a cook at the company.

“I know it’s hard to get a job out there, that is why I would rather wait here until efforts to revive Mumias come to fruition.”

He claims the company owes him Sh400,000 in salary arrears which, if paid today, he will use to settle “many debts and return to begging”. That is why all he wants is to see the factory running again.

Eruzu is among 3,000 former employees who continue to hold on to the hope that things might change for the better sooner or later. 

Former staff recall how it all started. “Mumias started sending its employees home while some were put on short contracts. Our salaries were chopped then suddenly stopped. We had never seen such a thing before,” says Vitalis Makokha, Kenya Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers Mumias branch secretary.

“Many of our members who were rendered jobless between 2017 and 2019 are the ones still in the houses. The few absorbed by the receiver-manager are not enjoying either; they have to do with whatever they are paid.”

When Ponangipalli Venkata Ramana Rao took over as receiver-manager in September 2019, he allowed about 800 workers to continue occupying the houses in the hope they would be absorbed when he revives the miller.

It has since been a journey in the wilderness for the workers who appear not ready to call it quits.

“The receiver-manager found three-year salary arrears when he took over. At least nine people have died in the houses. Others sunk into alcoholism for they could not withstand the shock of joblessness,” says the company’s legal head Patrick Mutuli.

According to Mutuli, the residents frequent his office to inquire when the factory will resume operations, promising to take whatever job will be available.

Just like their lives, Makokha says the estate is a pale shadow of what it used to be when residents were the envy of the neighbourhood.

They enjoyed free water and electricity, and the houses were well maintained.

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