A fresh row has erupted between tea multinationals and a workers’ union over the introduction of tea plucking machines, which could cost more than 50,000 workers their jobs.
The Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) said five major tea firms in Rift Valley, which have mechanised tea plucking to cut down on production costs resulting in job redundancies.
KPAWU national organising secretary Henry Omasire claimed Eastern Produce of Kenya (EPK), Williamson Tea, Sotik Tea, Finlay, Unilever and Kipkebe, which operates in Kericho, Nandi, Bomet and Nyamira counties, have since last year sacked workers as they mechanise tea harvesting.
“The majority of workers have been sacked after multinational tea companies introduced plucking machines, impacting negatively to the socio-economic status of most families,” he said.
Mr Omasire claimed more than 10,0000 tea workers have been sacked since the introduction of plucking machines to cut costs.
“The Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Ministry of Health should carry out independent investigations into the side effects of the tea plucking machines, which the tea companies have continued to ignore,” he said.
Nandi County Assembly last year adopted a motion to introduce new levies on the introduction of tea plucking by the multinationals to replace casual workers.
The levies, according to Kapchorwa MCA John Kebenei and his Kabwareng counterpart Jackson Swadi, would protect tea workers’ jobs.
“Apart from the possible health hazards, the tea plucking machines compromise the quality of tea in the international market, denying the country the much-required foreign exchange,” said Mr Swadi.
Former Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya (EPCK) director Joseph Lagat said the tea industry would experience massive sackings of workers due to the use of plucking machines.
“The tea industry will experience unrest due to sacking of workers as a result of tea plucking machines,” he said, adding that the machines would compromise the quality of tea in the international market.
Tea multi-nationals in Nandi and Kericho lost about Sh300 million as a result of a workers’ strike last year.
The firms defended the tea plucking machines, saying it would reduce the cost of production and enable them to remain afloat on the competitive global tea market.
“Plucking machines have been introduced in most tea producing countries, and Kenya is not an exception, especially in this era of mechanised agriculture to cut down on production costs,” said a senior manager in Nandi Hills who requested not to be named since the official is not authorised to speak to the media.
“The machines consume less fuel and is managed by one person who can do work for more than 20 tea pickers cutting down on the cost of production by a greater margin,” added the manager.
Most tea companies pay tea pickers Sh15.50 per kilogram of green leaves and the operation of tea plucking machines cuts down on Labour costs.
The workers operating tea machines are paid Sh4 per Kg as compared to Sh15.50 for the tea pickers.
The Kenya Tea Growers Association Chief Executive Apollo Kiarii dismissed claims by KPAWU over sacking of workers as a result of introduction of automation of tea plucking process.
“There is no worker who has been rendered redundant by tea factories as a result of the mechanization of tea harvesting,” said Mr Kiarii on phone.
He said the tea companies were reducing their workforce through natural attrition.
“The companies are not replacing workers who voluntarily resign, dies or is sacked due to misconduct but instead use the machine to execute the role of the employee who has left the company,” he said.
He explained that one machine is operated by four people thus more cost effective as compared to manual tea harvesting process.
“What we need to accept is that the world is moving towards agricultural mechanization in order to create efficiency and better terms for workers. A tea plucker will only manage to take home Sh532 per day by plucking an average of 40 kilograms while a machine can do 150 kilograms per day,” explained Mr Kiarii.
He disclosed that most multinational tea companies harvest up to two million kilograms of the green leaf a day during peak season.