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Union threatens tea firms with international court action

Cotu boss Francis Atwoli. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Cotu boss Francis Atwoli. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) will move to an international court to take to task tea multinationals for violating Kenyan workers’ rights.

Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli claims the companies have for five years refused to implement Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) with over 300,000 members of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KAPWU).

Addressing journalists at Whitesands Hotel in Mombasa today, Mr Atwoli said the union has already signed an agreement with UK law firm Ozon Solicitors to assist in handling the case in Britain where the firms are based.

“This international law firm from Manchester will work hand in hand with our lawyers here to pursue this issue soon so that our workers can secure their rights and also for these multinational companies to acknowledge us as a union,” said Mr Atwoli.

The outspoken trade unionist said the companies operating in Sotik, Kericho and Nandi Hills have pushed back attempts to review their workers' terms since 2013.

“It is now five years and they are continuing to exploit our people which we have said enough is enough. We will for the first time move to international courts to fight to fight,” he said, adding that efforts by Cotu and other agricultural unions to fight their case in Kenyan courts hit a snag following petitions by the companies.

“We have won several cases but these companies have decided to challenge them in courts of law. They move from high courts to the appeal courts and Supreme where cases are taking long with workers continuing to suffer.”

Judiciary

Mr Atwoli said efforts by both Cotu and the agricultural unions to fight their case in Kenyan labour relations courts have hit a snag following petitions by the companies in law courts.

Asked whether the union had no faith in the Kenyan system, Mr Atwoli termed the judicial system as “tedious”, saying the process will take long “when some of those workers might have died or left their place of work”.

The planned move by Cotu is only the latest development in a row pitting the union against local and international tea companies such as James Finlay, Unilever Tea Ltd, Sasini, Williamson Tea, Karirana Ltd and Limuru Tea.

A three-week strike called by the Atwoli-led KAPWU in November last year led to losses of close to a billion shillings for the firms. The industrial action paralysed picking and sales at the Mombasa tea auction.

In April this year, Finlays announced the closure of two of its flower farms in Kericho citing high labour costs and persistent strikes by workers.

Mr Atwoli has also previously voiced his support for calls to transfer the management of multinational tea firms to county governments.

Financials

Williamson Tea Kenya #ticker:WTK and its affiliate Kapchorua Tea #ticker:KAPC sunk to half year losses for the half year to September 2018, citing depressed tea prices and high operating expenses.

Williamson posted a Sh85 million net loss while Kapchorua's after-tax loss widened more than five times to Sh76.5 million.

The two firms painted a grim picture going forward, saying that they see tea prices remaining depressed.

With wage negotiations with workers yet to be concluded, it spells further uncertainty to their already high cost of doing business.

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