Tea pickers and their employers in war of words

Tea is a key source of revenue for Nandi. Several multi-nationals have created many jobs and inject around Sh70 million a month in Nandi Hills Town alone.

Photo/JARED NYATAYA/NATION The scenic Nandi Hills tea states in Nandi County on September 26, 2011.  

BY BARNABAS BII

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Tea is a key source of revenue for Nandi. Several multi-nationals have created many jobs and inject around Sh70 million a month in Nandi Hills Town alone.

But tea workers face a bleak future following the introduction of mechanised picking.

The move has resulted in a war of words between the multi-nationals and trade unions which are demanding the withdrawal of the machines to avoid mass unemployment.

Mr Joshua Oyuga, treasurer of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union said more than 2,000 workers had been sacked following the introduction of the machines in Kericho, Nandi and Sotik.

Thousands of tea workers went on strike last year to protest against the machines. The strike was called off after the Ministry of Labour intervened to arbitrate.

Mr Oyuga said that apart from causing mass unemployment, the machines were health hazards and compromised the quality of processed tea.

“Some of those who have used the machines for a long period end up developing respiratory problems forcing them to incur extra costs for treatment,” alleged Mr Oyuga.

The claims have not been proven medically. One former worker, Mr Jackson Kipkorir, said, “Too much inhaling of carbon emitted from the machine often resulted in health complications to some of us.”

Mr Oyuga went on: “Quality tea requires picking of two leaves and a bud which need to be done manually unlike mechanised system that sweeps everything.”

He said many children had been forced to drop out of school when their parents moved after they lost their jobs and that some schools faced closure because of the low number of pupils.

Mr Boniface Tenai, a teachers’ union official, added, “Proper structures need to be put in place to ensure that the children continue with their education even after their parents lost employment.”

The multinationals have defended the machines saying they are cost effective and in line with global changes.

They said workers should accept mechanised system rather than be left behind in modern crop production techniques.

The introduction of the machines led to workers asking for pay increases to cope with the rising cost of living.

More than 200,000 tea workers are demanding a minimum monthly wage of Sh10,000, up from Sh8,013.

Mr Oyuga wants the revised salary scheme implemented by January next year once the current deal signed with the multinationals expires in December.

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