Counties

Fresh row over tea plucking machines as job losses mount

tea

Workers use tea picking machines in a tea plantation in Kericho. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • A row has erupted between multinational tea companies and a workers’ union over sacking of thousands over the Covid-19 pandemic that was followed by their replacement with plucking machines.
  • The Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) claims the firms have sacked more than 30,000 workers since the outbreak of coronavirus last year and now wants the process suspended to safeguard jobs.

A row has erupted between multinational tea companies and a workers’ union over sacking of thousands over the Covid-19 pandemic that was followed by their replacement with plucking machines.

The Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) claims the firms have sacked more than 30,000 workers since the outbreak of coronavirus last year and now wants the process suspended to safeguard jobs.

“It is unfortunate between January and March this year alone the companies have sacked 1,005 workers in what they claim is meant to tame the spread of Covid-19, but replace them with combined harvesters resulting in mass unemployment,” said Mr Henry Omasire the KPAWU National Organising Secretary.

He said the tea combine harvesters managed by four workers displace 45 workers. The companies are increasingly mechanising their operations to cut down on costs.

“It is unfair for the tea companies to capitalise on the coronavirus to sack the workers and replace them with machines, subjecting them to serious socio-economic challenges,” added Mr Omasire.

But some companies have defended the introduction of tea plucking machines saying it cushions them from escalating production costs.

“Plucking machines have been introduced in most tea producing countries and Kenya is not an exception especially in this era of mechanised agriculture,” said a senior manager in Nandi Hills who requested not to be named since he is not authorized to speak to the media.

“The machines consume less fuel and are 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,” argued a director at one of the tea companies.

Most tea companies pay tea pickers Sh15.50 per kilogramme of green leaves. On the other hand, workers operating the machines are paid Sh4 per kilogramme.

Nandi County Assembly last year adopted a motion to introduce new levies on introduction of tea plucking machines by multinationals to replace casual workers to sustain operations and cut down on costs.

The levies, according to Kapchorwa Member of County Assembly John Kebenei and his Kabwareng counterpart Jackson Swadi will protect tea workers from facing the sack as a result of the tea plucking machines.