The management of James Finlay tea company was yesterday hard pressed to explain how it determines the rate of payment for mechanical tea harvesters.
The Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee accused the company of taking advantage of a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to exploit the harvesters.
Committee Chairman Nairobi senator Johnson Sakaja said there is a lacuna in the CBA on the payment rates.
"It's convoluted. It's very clear on the rates for hand plucking but there is a loophole on mechanical tea harvesting, which the firm has taken advantage of," he said.
The committee held a special sitting at James Finlay Company headquarters in Chepkembe, Kericho County, where they met the management.
Finlay Human Resource Director Daniel Kirui, in his response, admitted that the CBA recognises only two categories of employees; field workers and hand pluckers.
"Any other employee who is not on hand plucking is paid as a field employee. What happens in mechanical tea harvesting is that we task the employees to harvest a certain volume of green tea to earn that equivalent of a field employee's monthly wage," he said.
Kirui said the firm, which is a Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) member, currently pays a rate of Sh15.32 per kilo of harvested tea.
"This means the daily wage is Sh689, which translates to Sh17,921 per month," he said.
The United Kingdom-based company, which once had a workforce of 12,000 in the era of hand plucking, has now fully mechanised tea harvesting and downsized its workforce to 5,000.
He said it was hard for the tea company to fix a specific rate per kilogramme of mechanically harvested tea since the CBA was a negotiated document and applies to several tea companies.
"The machine every company uses is different. The varieties of tea they grow are also different," said Kirui.
Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot said the tea firm's decision to render 7,000 workers redundant in the process of mechanisation does not augur well with the Kipsigis community on whose land the tea firm sits.
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The company occupies 5,200 hectares of land on a 99-year leasehold. It has nine tea estates straddling Kericho and Bomet counties.
"It's a big concern from us as Kericho leaders when the company always finds a justification to trim further the workforce. It might now get to a point where the community might not see the benefit and the need for the company to continue conducting its tea business here," said Cheruiyot.
"Evidence continues to point out that as there is increased detachment between locals and the business, leading to an upsurge in cases of vandalism."
Henry Omasire, the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (Kpawu) national organising secretary, accused the firm of overworking its low-career employees while rejecting the union's calls to include the mechanical tea harvesters in the CBA.
"Early in the year, we tried to negotiate with the company management over the issue but they rejected the idea. We forced them to capture in the minutes that we are going to form a subcommittee where we can also bring in experts because the machines are a health risk," said Omasire.
Kpawu Deputy General Secretary Thomas Kemboi said the union will fight for a clause to be inserted in the CBA on the mechnaical harvesters.
"The employees should not be graded as drivers and put on a minimum wage," he said.
The Senate committee's visit to the firm followed Bomet Senator Christopher Langat's demand for a statement concerning 719 workers who were laid off by the tea firm on November 19, 2020.