High plucking charges bring labour pains to tea industry
- Workers now demand Sh10 per kilo of delivered tea, leaving farmers with Sh4 to cater for other needs
The local tea industry could be thrown into a labour crisis as pluckers increase their fee.
They are now taking home Sh10 for every kilogramme of green leaf delivered, which leaves farmers with only Sh4 to cater for other costs such as fertiliser, pruning, and weeding.
The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) pays farmers Sh14 per kilogramme of green leaf delivered every month and a bonus at the end of the crop year. The bonus is based on kilogrammes accumulated over the season.
Following the price rise, tea factory directors from Nyeri and Murang’a are trying to bring the charges to manageable levels after an outcry from farmers.
A meeting attended by more than 30 directors of the five tea factories in Nyeri County proposed the adoption of lower charges.
According to the proposal, plucking charges should be pegged at Sh8 a kilogramme. An additional Sh1 should cater for cess, Sh1.50 for fertiliser, and Sh1.50 for weeding, pruning, and other expenses.
A major problem
The formula leaves a net of Sh2 a kilogramme a month for the grower.
“Plucking rates are becoming a major problem to the tea grower. We have discussed it and agreed to adopt a uniform rate for tea pickers in the Murang’a and Nyeri region. We have settled for Sh8 per kilogramme and hope every farmer will comply,” said Mr Eustace Karanja, who chaired the meeting on behalf of KTDA chairman Peter Kanyago.
What is worrying farmers is that the plucking rate has been on a steady increase, leaving many farmers with a negative income.
This is creating a rare situation where plucking tea is becoming more profitable than growing it. The situation has been worsened by the few workers willing to toil as tea pickers.
The KTDA regional manager, Mr Josphat Michoma, described the situation as grave and one that could kill the multi-billion shilling sub-sector as it was making tea farming an unviable business.
“The fact that this is the first time that farmers are coming together to fix plucking rates underlines the seriousness of the situation,” he said.
KTDA has in the past responded to rising labour costs by raising the cost of green leaf.
But this time round, the agency seems keen to try a new strategy of fixing the rate. Lost to those behind the strategy, however, is that labour costs are normally driven by demand and supply. The problem has been compounded by the fact that many young people look down on farm jobs.
Use of machines
In 2005, the Ministry of Labour allowed tea firms to partly embrace use of machines as a way of mitigation against high operation costs, especially labour, which accounts for about 40 per cent of production costs.
But the workers’ union accused companies of going full throttle with the idea, yet they had been allowed to use the machines for only three per cent of their plucking requirements.
About 80,000 tea workers in the Rift Valley went on strike to protest against the use of the machines, which they said would cost them their jobs.
Some companies chose to send their permanent staff on early retirement before hiring them again on casual basis, sparking an outcry from the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union, which termed the move exploitative.
While an average plucker can pick a maximum of 40 kilogrammes, a machine can harvest up to 300 kilogrammes in a day and is recommended for high quality teas.
Kenya is the leading exporter of black tea in the world. The commodity is the country’s second-largest foreign exchange earner, after horticulture.