A row has erupted between Nandi County government and multi-national tea companies over plans to slap new taxes on tea plucking machines.
Some tea companies are opposed to the proposed levies by the devolved unit terming the move punitive and aimed at locking them out of business by raising production costs.
Managers of the firms on Monday petitioned the county government to suspend the bill and encourage mechanisation of tea production as use of casual workers was expensive.
“Plucking machines have been introduced in most tea producing countries and Kenya is not an exception especially in this era of mechanised agriculture which is meant to cut down production costs,” said a senior manager in a firm in Nandi Hills who requested not to be named.
“The machines consume less fuel and each is managed by one person who does the work of more than 20 tea pickers. This cuts the cost of production by a great margin,” argued a director at one of the tea companies.
Most tea companies pay tea pickers Sh15.50 per kilogramme of green leaf, a cost they argue can be lowered by use of machines. Workers operating tea machines are paid Sh4 for every kilo harvested compared to Sh15.50 for the tea pickers.
The County Assembly last week adopted a motion to introduce new levies on the tea plucking machines.
The levies, according to Kapchorwa Member of County Assembly John Kebenei and his Kabwareng counterpart Jackson Swadi, will protect tea workers from the sack as a result of the tea plucking machines.
“Apart from possible health hazards, the tea plucking machines compromise the quality of tea in the international market, denying the country the much needed foreign exchange,” said Mr Swadi.
About 5,000 casual workers in tea companies in the county have been axed following the introduction of tea plucking machines.
Multinational tea companies in Nandi and Kericho counties lost about Sh300 million as a result of recent strikes by the workers.
According to a former director at the Eastern Produce tea Company of Kenya, Mr Joseph Lagat, the tea industry will experience massive job losses if the machines are adopted.
Assembly Speaker Joshua Kiptoo defended the bill, saying it will help create more jobs and improve revenue generation for the devolved unit.
Former Chief Executive Officer at the Kenya Tea Growers Association Gideon Too also opposed introduction of tea plucking machines, over job loss fears.