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Tea machines: Why political promises may not be achieved

Tea pickers operate a tea picking machine at Nandi Hills in Nandi County. [Kevin Tunoi, Standard]

A section of elected leaders in the South Rift has an uphill task in convincing multinational companies to abandon tea plucking machines, which was part of their campaign promises.

It is a situation that has left the voters in a 'wait and watch' approach', given that the appellate court had made its pronouncement on the matter by upholding a High Court decision that gave the companies the green light to continue using the machines.

During the campaign season, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) politicians wooed the electorate by firing shots at multination tea firms over the deployment of tea harvesting machines.

Kericho Governor-elect Dr Erick Mutai, Senator-elect Aaron Cheruiyot, and Members of Parliament-elect (MPs) Nelson Koech (Belgut) and Joseph Cherorot (Kipkelion East) argued that the use of machines in harvesting tea was to blame for the rising unemployment rates and stagnation of the local economy.

Dr Mutai reiterated that his administration will outlaw mechanized tea harvesting machines from tea estates in the county and also, review the land rates.

George Williamson, James Finlay, Unilever (CVC Capital Partners) Sotik Tea are some of the multinational tea firms in Kericho and Bomet counties.

The firms occupy 800,000 acres of land under 99- year- lease.

Cheruiyot reiterated that one of the Kenya Kwanza government's first agendas in the agriculture sector will be the outlawing of machines.

On the other hand, Koech, said the deployment of heavy machines has caused a sudden slump in the local economy by an estimated 20 per cent.

Tea is a top foreign exchange earner and is estimated to employ over 200,000 workers directly.

"If the multinational tea firms want to deploy tea harvesting machines, it should be only for 30 per cent of the work and 70 per cent left to the pickers," said Koech.

 The Belgut MP-elect said the National Assembly should also recommend the mandatory maximum percentage of tea plantations that multinational tea firms must harvest mechanically to avert further job losses.

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 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 mechanization 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 mechanization.

“In Argentina, 1,000 acres of land is run by 40 people using machines. Kenya is not even there yet,” he said.

The push by the leaders, however, may not bear any fruits to the anticipation of residents.

Tea companies and Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union for over 16 years have been engaged in a bitter legal tussle over the use of machines on their farms.

KPAWU and tea companies have since 2006 engaged in court cases over the use of the machines in harvesting tea and pruning.

On May 4, 2006, KPAWU demanded that James Finlay Limited and Sotik Tea Company Limited discontinue the use of the tea plucking and pruning technology. The union threatened to call a strike on May 25, 2006.

On May 24, 2006, Dr. Newton W. Kulundu, then Minister for Labour and Human Resource Development following the strike notice by KPAWU over the use of machines in plucking tea issued orders that the tea plucking machines in the estates of the member companies of the Kenya Tea Growers Association be withdrawn with immediate effect

He also declared the intended strike action in the tea sector unlawful.

Finlays and Sotik tea were aggrieved with the order to have machines withdrawn and moved to court seeking to have orders barring the Minister from interfering with their business.

Judge Roseline Wendoh in a December 6, 2006 judgment held that the machines had already been in use for a considerable period to KPAWU’s knowledge.

She noted that there was no evidence of any redundancy or loss of jobs as a result of the introduction of the machines.

She issued an order quashing the Minister’s order that prohibited the tea companies from using tea plucking and pruning machines.

Aggrieved, KPAWU lodged an appeal.

On July 13, 2018. Court of Appeal Judges Patrick Kiage, Kathurima M’Inoti, and Agnes Murgor upheld the decision of the High Court.

“In this appeal, we have noted that the adoption of machines by the respondents in their operations did not, and has not resulted in any redundancy. We, therefore, do not see any legitimate basis upon which the Minister ordered the respondents to withdraw their machines,” read the judgment by the Appeal Court judges.

They noted that even if the adoption of technology was going to result in redundancy, there was a prescribed procedure to protect the rights of the workers, which could easily have been invoked.

“We have ultimately come to the conclusion that the learned judge properly exercised her discretion when she issued the order of certiorari, given the circumstances of this appeal. This appeal, therefore, is bereft of merit and is hereby dismissed with costs to the respondents. It is so ordered,” they concluded.

On October 10, 2010, KPAWU demanded that Uniliver Kenya Tea Limited immediately withdraw its tea harvesting machines.

Uniliver, however, moved to court seeking protection of its rights to mechanise and adopt technology in its operations.

During the hearing of the case parties in making reference to the Court of Appeal judges agreed that the issues in the suit by Uniliver as regards their right to make commercial and business judgments on whether to adopt technology in its operations has been settled.

The parties agreed that the issues relating to the right to mechanise have already been determined.

Justice James Aaron Makau in a judgment delivered on January 28, 2021, said the company has a right to mechanise and adopt technology in its operations.

“In view of the aforesaid and as agreed by both Petitioner’s (Uniliver Kenya) and Respondent’s Counsel (KPAWU) I find as decided in the Court of Appeal decision herein above, the Petitioner has a right to mechanise and adopt technology in its operations. The matter in dispute is therefore effectively concluded and settled in terms hereinabove stated,” ruled Justice Makau.