Joel Too lost his right eye in November while pruning tea at Chemase Estate, which belongs to James Finlay Kenya Ltd, a subsidiary of the Swire Group of London.
A sharp branch that had accidentally sprang up broke his goggles and pierced through his cornea.
A casual labourer employed by a contracting intermediary and not recognised by James Finlay, he didn’t have the right to use the company’s health facilities, so his contractor rushed him to Kericho County Hospital, where he was treated.
He had to foot the Sh20,000 bill and is now partially blind.
Mr Too had earlier been a permanent employee at James Finlay, enjoying a higher salary and medical insurance, among other benefits.
But he and 285 others were dismissed after an industrial strike that all workers staged in 2016, demanding the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement that included a 30 per cent salary increase.
Although the labour court has reinstated them, the company appealed and the court ruled that they should step aside pending the hearing of the matter.
“The company sacrificed a number of employees who were deemed vocal during the strike. Since they still needed our expertise, they then opened opportunities for us to work but on contract at half the amounts we were previously earning and without benefits,” said the employee, wiping his teary blind eye.
Besides losing their benefits, they now earn Sh300 a day, down from the initial Sh600.
The multinational companies have gone through tumultuous times the past three years, characterised by industrial unrest and workers’ strikes that were unheard of before. They have also been in and out of court for inability to agree on, among other things, a minimum-wage increase with the union.
James Finlay, which is shutting down its flower section in phases, a move that will kill the jobs of more than 2,000 workers, has resorted to outsourcing cheap labour to cut costs.
Companies contracted by James Finlay hire labourers to work on its farms.
Some of these firms are owned by former employees of the multinational.
They are paid between Sh600 and Sh700 per worker and they in turn pay them less than half of this amount.
Slashing bushes, plucking tea, pruning it, weeding and factory jobs are some of the opportunities available. Whereas tea-plucking is paid based on the number of kilos one harvests, the rest attract between Sh250 to Sh300 a day.
The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU), which has relentlessly been fighting for employees’ welfare, said the company prefers using contractors who don’t belong to unions as a way of trimming the unions’ powers.
“The non-unionised members are overworked, underpaid and denied basic benefits, yet they cannot complain because the tough economic times compel them to toil for the meagre wages paid weekly in cash or via M-Pesa,” said KPAWU’s Kericho branch Secretary Dickson Sang.
According to their CBA, the minimum wage paid to an employee per day should be Sh612.
However, the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), where James Finlay is a member, defended the company, saying they respect their agreement with the union.
“James Finlay has rules which contractors should follow when engaging people to work in farms. There are systems requiring them to register workers and ensure they have NSSF and NHIF,” said KTGA Chief Executive Officer Apollo Kiarii.
But the Sunday Nation spoke to several employees who said the contractors didn’t ask them for any personal details.
In particular, those who were declared redundant during the ongoing shutdown of the flower farm said they just had to agree to part with some of the salary or give in to sexual demands to secure the poor-paying job.
The flower farm’s closing caught most of them flat-footed and they were unable to go home due to the burden of unpaid loans and the inability to immediately find alternative jobs. They sought casual jobs.
Mr Ayiecko Nyabaro, who had worked in the company for over 10 years, is one of them. He used to earn Sh12,000 per month but is now earning Sh6, 000 as a contracted labourer.
“I used to transport flowers but now I am contracted to uproot the same flowers in preparation for the closure. It’s so strenuous such that uprooting a single line takes two days. That means you earn a day’s salary for two days’ work,” he said.
Ms Mercy Chelang’at said that in April 2018, they received a two months’ notice of closure and redundancy although the layoffs began in July.
“It eventually got to me in September. When I got all my benefits, it was too little to even pay for the cost of transporting my luggage home. That is why I sought a contract,” she narrated.
She weeds tea farms, where she is required to work on an acre between 7am and 1pm for a paltry Sh250 per day. It takes them up to three days to finish it, meaning the additional time is not paid for.
Ms Doreen Chelangat said the contract terms have subjected them to sexual harassment by subcontractors and supervisors.
“Women go through sexual harassment in order to get jobs or even to be paid the full amount. A contractor I approached solicited sexual favours from me but I moved on to another one and although I was lucky to get the job, the terms are unclear. I am not sure how much they will pay in a month,” she said.
The male employees mostly complained about having to part with Sh100 every day to their demanding supervisors.
Collins Kipchumba got a job at Kapsongoi Estate, but because the contractor wanted a bribe that he didn’t have, they agreed that he would deduct Sh100 every day from the already meagre Sh250.
“Since I started working, I earn only Sh150 or sometimes Sh100 daily. I was desperate for this job so I have to endure it,” he said.
Other than outsourcing labour, companies have devised other methods like using machines to reduce human labour, constant transfer of workers within its estates and holding back union dues.
Today, tea multinationals in Kenya operate mainly in Kericho, Bomet and Nandi where they control in excess of 300,000 acres. Most of the land leased in Kericho and Bomet where they hold about 200,000 acres, is paid for at a land rate of 20 cents (Sh 0.2) per acre per annum. Multinational tea companies in the region include Unilever, James Finlay and George Williamson.
The union and local leadership including Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony and his Nandi counterpart Stephen Sang have castigated the use of heavy machines, saying they deny locals jobs.
They argue that the equipment also exposes workers to skeletal disorders brought about by carrying the machines under the uneven terrain.
Mr Apollo of KTGA has, however, publicly said mechanisation of tea harvesting is being embraced by Kenya’s main competitors abroad and that efforts to resist the shift only serve to make Kenya less competitive, which would result in less employment.
“Just like the technological revolution currently underway across the service industry, mechanisation in production of tea is driven by increasing wage costs. The task at hand now remains ensuring a harmonious transition to a model where the use of machinery compliments labour. It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ mechanisation will fully take place,” he said. KTGA members further argue that costs incurred by the tea producers are unsustainably high and that use of machines increases the quantity of tea plucked while reducing costs.