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Tea plucking machines leave thousands jobless

RIFT VALLEY
By Nikko Tanui | July 26th 2021
A tea plucker from Kairuri village in Embu North Subcounty. [Muriithi Mugo, Standard]

Samuel Ngugi, who owns Embassy Crystal, a leading Electronic shop within Kericho town, recalls days in the late 1990s when his sales could hit Sh500,000. He sells television sets, solar panels, bicycles and other items, but things have since nosedived.

“It is a miracle nowadays when we manage to surpass a quarter of the sales we used to make especially in the 1990s,” said Ngugi, who is also the Kericho Investors and Business Associations (KIBA) chairman.

His sentiments are echoed by Simeon Koech, the National Chamber of Commerce trustee, who says tea workers used to contribute at least Sh30 million monthly on payday. “The employees would often spend at least 70 per cent of their salaries within the county. But things have since changed, there has been a huge drop in workers within the multinational tea companies. They now hardly inject Sh5 million monthly into the local economy,” he said.

Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) figures indicate that the union’s membership drawn from Bomet and Kericho counties has plummeted from 30,000 to barely 10,000 today.

Jared Momanyi, the Bomet KPAWU branch secretary and his Kericho counterpart Dickson Sang, pointed out that the latest batch of tea harvesting machines were deployed by the multinational tea firms when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

According to the union, each of the machines can displace over 200 tea pluckers. “James Finlay, Unilever, George Williamson, Sotik tea and other multinational tea companies in South Rift region have now deployed bigger tea plucking machines. Going by this rate, 2,000 additional tea pluckers will soon be rendered jobless,” said Momanyi.

Sang appealed to President Uhuru Kenyatta to ensure the government places a limit on the percentage of tea plantations the multinational tea firms can harvest mechanically.

“The government must put in place a piece of legislation and policies to regulate the mechanisation of tea plucking. It must safeguard the tea pluckers’ livelihoods,” he said.

However, Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) Chief Executive Officer Apollo Kiari claimed that multinational tea companies use machines when there is a natural attrition of tea pluckers through either death, retirement or resignation, termination or dismissal.

KTGA members also opt for the machines when they want to improve their efficiency. They “mix” manual labour with tea plucking machines. “We are managing the current workforce by giving them good terms as we introduce mechanisation knowing that it shouldn’t be a solution to the end, but it’s a means to efficiency and sustainability,” said Kiari.

Mr Kiari pointed out that countries such as India, Siri Lanka, China, and Argentina had embraced mechanisation. “In Argentina, 1,000 acres of land is run by 40 people using machines. Kenya is not even there yet,” he said.

James Finlays Managing Director Simeon Hutchinson said; “The decision to mechanise the tea process is a business decision. It is not an industrial relations issue.”

As the debate rages on, Unilever Tea company recently advertised for mechanical harvesters, giving the clearest sign that multinational tea companies were on the road to fully mechanise their operations, which might result in massive job cuts.

In the advertisement by the company, it stated that owing to improved efficiency in tea farming, it requires talent with mechanical and automotive engineering.

To rejuvenate the local economy, Governor Paul Chepkwony intends to hike land rates from the current Sh1,200 to Sh10,000.

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