Tea pickers lose battle to machines 

Workers use a tea picking machine at a farm in Kericho. Tea pickers have decried the use of machines saying they are losing jobs.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A worker’s union has lost a 10-year fight to prevent multinational Unilever from using tea plucking machines.

The High Court on Thursday ruled that the tea firm is within its rights to adopt new technologies in its operations.

The Kenya Plantations and Agricultural Workers’ Union (KPAWU) had in 2010 moved to court seeking an immediate ban and withdrawal of tea harvesting machines by Unilever Tea Kenya, arguing that they threatened thousands of jobs of tea pickers.

But in a petition, Unilever argued that the Constitution enshrines the equality of all persons under the law, as well as the right to acquire and own property. It argued that it had a right to modernise its operations.

In his ruling, Justice James Makau cited an earlier Court of Appeal’s judgement in a similar case pitting KPAWU against Finlays and Sotik tea companies.

The judge noted that an employer has the right to “make commercial and business judgement whether it will adopt technology or not in its operations, subject to following all prescribed procedures should its adoption of technology result in a redundancy situation,” the Appellant court had ruled.

 “I find as decided in the Court of Appeal decision, the petitioner has a right to mechanise and adopt technology in its operations. The matter in dispute is therefore effectively concluded and settled in terms stated,” Justice Makau ruled.

The workers’ union last month warned that the use of tea plucking machines could cost more than 50,000 workers their jobs and that already over 10,000 tea pickers have since been sacked.

But the Kenya Tea Growers Association dismissed the claims, saying tea companies were reducing their workforce through natural attrition.

Tea firms have defended the tea plucking machines, saying it would reduce the cost of production and enable them to remain afloat on the competitive global tea market.

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