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Anxiety as 11,000 Unilever tea workers face sack

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Workers pick tea at Unilever tea estate in Kericho. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Kericho-based Unilever Tea, which has 16,000 employees, said the layoffs are in line with a reorganisation plan that aims to make the third largest tea company in the world “agile” in a changing business environment.
  • The tea workers’ union, however, reacted sharply to the retrenchment plan and accused the company of breaching labour laws.

The Kenyan subsidiary of British consumer goods giant Unilever Plc has embarked on a massive layoffs plan targeting 11,000 employees, the workers’ union said as it announced a major battle with the company.

Kericho-based Unilever Tea, which has 16,000 employees, said the layoffs are in line with a reorganisation plan that aims to make the third largest tea company in the world “agile” in a changing business environment.

“This has been aimed at ensuring we have an organisation that is agile, fit to compete and efficient in our quest to respond to rapidly changing business needs,” Unilever Tea human resources manager Mary Wanyonyi said in a February 27 memo to employees.

“It is in this regard that Unilever Tea Kenya is offering voluntary separation to non-management employees to be conducted strictly on voluntary basis.”

The tea grower said affected employees will be eligible for severance pay of 23 days for each completed year of service, notice pay in accordance with terms of service, any outstanding leave days and one way bus fare as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The tea workers’ union, however, reacted sharply to the retrenchment plan and accused the company of breaching labour laws.

Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union assistant secretary-general Meshack Khisa said Unilever’s decision to send workers home amounts to involvement in “unfair labour practices” and “corporate greed.”

“(The union) strongly condemns Unilever Tea Kenya for engaging in corporate greed and jeopardising over 11,000 unionised workers’ jobs through a separation exercise that only targets unionised employees,” he said in a statement.

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Not necessary

Mr Khisa argued that the retrenchment was not necessary as there was no economic crisis at the company.

“The business is up and running, supply of tea leaves as a raw material is in plenty and the market has not shrunk. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for voluntary cessation of employment,” he said.

The union hit out at Unilever, claiming that the emoluments it had offered the departing employees are benefits payable and entitled to an employee under the company’s CBA with the union and not an offer as stated by Unilever.

The Employment and Labour Relations Court has since issued an injunction stopping the exercise until the union’s petition is heard and determined beginning August 14.

Unilever Tea Kenya’s social impact director Joseph Mitei said in an interview that the company had suspended the programme as directed by the court.

“We respect the court and so we have suspended the plan until the case is heard and determined,” he said.

Mr Mitei, however, defended the plan on grounds that it is “voluntary”.

Unilever Tea owns 20 tea estates and eight factories manufacturing an average of 32 million kilogrammes of tea every year.