What you need to know:
- More than 60,000 workers in the tea industry have lost their jobs due to cost-cutting measures taken by multinationals.
- This follows an acute shortage of green tea occasioned by the ongoing drought, with the layoffs aggravating the situation for workers already enduring a high cost of living.
- Tea firms have also reduced working hours from eight to six for five days a week.
More than 60,000 workers in the tea industry have lost their jobs due to cost-cutting measures taken by multinationals.
This follows an acute shortage of green tea occasioned by the ongoing drought, with the layoffs aggravating the situation for workers already enduring a high cost of living. Tea firms have also reduced working hours from eight to six for five days a week.
Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) National Chairman Eliakim Ochieng yesterday told Nation tea companies in Nandi, Kericho, Bomet and Kiambu counties have fired workers and scaled-down operations.
“It is a double blow for workers, who are already faced with high food prices. They no longer have a steady source of income,” said Mr Ochieng, while appealing to the firms to continue supporting the workers financially.
According to Mr Ochieng, tea pickers are the most affected, with 15,000 of them losing their jobs in Nandi, 20,000 in Kericho, 15,000 in Bomet and 10,000 in Kiambu.
“Some of the tea companies are taking advantage of a shortage of green tea due to drought to sack tea pickers and outsource the work,” said Mr Ochieng.
Some tea companies have been forced to prune the crop due to declined yield for the past four months. The Ministry of Agriculture has warned of major shortfalls in cash crop output following a depressed October-December short rains season.
“The decreased rains will have a negative effect on the development of cash crops like tea, coffee, sugarcane and pyrethrum,” stated an annual agricultural report released in January.
According to the Tea Directorate, cumulative tea production has in the past four months declined by five million kilogrammes (Kgs) from 140.98 million to 135.83 million due to adverse weather conditions.
The country’s overall tea production stood at 459 million Kgs (2019), 490 million kg (2018), 437 million Kgs (2017), 473 million Kgs (2016) and 399 million Kgs (2015). The yield is expected to decline further this year translating to low revenues for farmers. KPAWU has urged tea firms to stop outsourcing jobs to protect workers.
The union took issue with Tindiret, Kaimosi and Kapchorwa tea companies, operating under Williamson Tea, for sub-contracting tea plucking to other firms to cut costs.
“It will lead to loss of jobs and exploitation of workers,” Mr Ochieng explained. He said private contractors pay tea pickers Sh300 per day compared to the Sh650 by the multi-nationals.
But senior managers have countered that outsourcing has cut down on costs and enabled them to sustain operations.
“We have no option but to outsource some of our services including tea plucking to enable us to remain afloat,” said a manager who requested not to be named due to company policy.
This comes amid plans by the Nandi County Government to tax tea-picking machines to protect jobs, a move that has been supported by KPAWU. The county assembly in early 2019 adopted a motion to introduce new levies on the machines.
The multinationals have opposed the levies, terming them punitive and claiming that they are aimed at putting them out of business.
‘Not an exception’
“Tea plucking machines have been introduced in most tea-producing countries to cut down on production costs. Kenya is not an exception, especially in this era of mechanised agriculture,” said a manager in Nandi Hills who requested not to be named since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“The machines consume less fuel and each is managed by one person who does the work of more than 20 tea pickers, reducing production costs by a huge margin,” argued a director at one of the tea companies.
The multinationals pay manual tea pickers Sh15.50 per kilogramme of green leaf, while workers operating tea machines are paid Sh4 per kilogramme.