Thousands of workers in the tea industry now risk losing their jobs as multi-national companies implement strict guidelines aimed at fighting the spread of the Covid-19.
In the Rift Valley, some of the tea firms in Nandi, Kericho and Bomet counties have reduced shifts and cut down on the number of casual workers as they apply guidelines, including social distancing, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) has petitioned the tea companies to spare the workers from the sack, noting that it will impact negatively on their socio-economic welfare.
“The tea companies need to device mechanisms to cushion workers against further sackings while they ensure that they abide by guidelines meant to tame the spread of Covid-19,” Mr Eliakim Ochieng, KPAWU national vice-chairman said.
He asked the multi-national tea companies to provide adequate sanitisers and ease congestions in place of work and residential areas as the government intensifies the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
“The tea companies should not take advantage of the coronavirus to replace workers with tea plucking machines which will result in the loss of jobs,” Mr Ochieng added.
This comes as tea companies on the world market slash buying prices as a result of surplus of the produce which has affected sales.
Most tea firms including James Finlay (Kenya) limited and Kaisugu Limited have reduced their prices by three and two shillings from Sh19 to Sh16 and Sh23 to Sh21 respectively due to declining global prices caused by oversupply.
The global tea prices have dropped in the past few months sparking protests from farmers who have appealed to the government to introduce subsidies to enable them to continue cultivating the cash crop.
“Massive layoffs might not be unavoidable to cut down on such production costs like pruning, weeding and picking of green tea leaves,” said David Lang‘at from Saos, who has ventured into cultivation of eucalyptus trees which fetch better prices owing to increased demand for wood and related products.
Some of the small scale tea farmers who missed out on bonuses from the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) have stopped taking care of the crop and resorted to forestry, horticulture and dairy farming to cushion them from financial difficulties.
The tea farmers in Nandi and Vihiga counties received about Sh14 per kilogramme as bonus while their counterparts at Kapsara Tea Factory in Trans Nzoia County were paid Sh11 per kilogramme, which they said was too low, with some of them contemplating uprooting the cash crop and investing in other lucrative sub-sectors.
“The drop in world tea prices is a total blow considering that we have not recovered from the effects of frost and hailstones that destroyed the crop last year. It might take long before the prices pick up, subjecting us to heavy losses, unless new markets for the produce emerge,” said Mathew Too from Chepkumia in Nandi County.
Farmers in Nandi said they pay Sh8 per kilogramme to tea pickers and an additional Sh5 per kilogramme is deducted for building of new tea factories.
Former Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Gideon Too and ex-Siret Tea Company manager Joseph Manjoy blamed political instability in tea buying countries for the declining prices.
“Political instability in such countries like Iraq and Egypt and are major factors which have forced tea prices on the world market to drop as compared to previous years,” Mr Too said.
Mr Manjoy said high fertiliser prices and increased labour costs are driving most farmers to scale down the acreage under tea bushes.
“There is need for the government to carry out an aggressive marketing strategy to find new buyers away from traditional ones to cushion farmers from further losses caused by the sliding prices,” Mr Manjoy said.
Kenya is the fourth tea producer in African and it exported 432 million kilos of purple tea in 2016.
Iran purchased 532,715 kilogrammes of tea last year, down from 590,111 in 2018. But the deadly coronavirus is likely to further affect the sales.
Pakistan is the leading export market for Kenyan tea, having imported 10.32 million kilos, accounting for 33 per cent of the total export volume last year.