What you need to know:
- The calls came hot on the heels of the torching of 10 machines at the Tagabi estate owned by Ekaterra tea company, previously trading as Unilever Tea (Kenya)
- James Finlay, Sasini, Sotik Highlands Tea, Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya and Williamsons Tea Kenya Plc are other firms affected by the rising political pressure
Multinational tea companies are taking the heat over the deployment of plucking machines in their estates.
Governors in the South Rift have asked President William Ruto to have the companies revert to human labour.
Governors Erick Mutai (Kericho), Stephen Sang (Nandi), Hillary Barchok (Bomet) and other local leaders want the companies to retain labourers.
The calls came hot on the heels of the torching of 10 machines at the Tagabi estate owned by Ekaterra tea company, previously trading as Unilever Tea (Kenya).
James Finlay, Sasini, Sotik Highlands Tea, Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya and Williamsons Tea Kenya Plc are other firms affected by the rising political pressure.
The companies are torn between reversing the two-decade old technological advancement, into which they have pumped hundreds of millions of shillings, in favour of manual plucking or defy the pressure, which has taken a criminal angle.
Dr Mutai said the firms had failed to listen to the pleas of disgruntled residents to save jobs.
“The multinationals have embraced mechanization, leading to job losses. Business enterprises in Kericho town have taken a hit due to workers’ redundancies,” Dr Mutai said.
The firms used to have 50,000 workers, but the numbers have shrunk to less than 10,000 due to mechanisation.
“Governors from the affected regions should address the issues raised by the people” Mr Sang stated.
Other leaders said residents of Bomet and Kericho had not benefited from the multinationals though the tens of thousands of acres they operate from was forcibly taken from locals in the early 1900s.
President Ruto said it was unfortunate mechanisation had killed jobs in the tea industry, noting that his government had a development agenda that would create employment opportunities.
James Finlay Managing Director Simeon Hutchinson recently held a meeting with Dr Mutai, but the issue was not resolved.
Mr Robert Korir, a Kericho resident, accused local leaders of ‘misleading’ voters that they could fight the deployment of the technology in private business enterprises and succeed.
“Even as they fight to get the machines removed, it must be remembered that from time immemorial, locals did not take up jobs as tea pickers as that was almost entirely the role of people from neighbouring counties. So who exactly are the leaders fighting for?” Mr Korir wondered.
He said the leaders should instead be pushing for an increase in corporate social responsibility projects.
The companies, he proposed, should also commit to participate in environmental conservation and climate change programmes.
“It is unfortunate that some of the leaders pushing for the removal of the machines are seeking to ride on the ignorance of youths for their political expediency,” former Bomet mayor Kipkemoi Barsumei said.
Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli previously claimed that more than 200,000 jobs had been lost in the tea sector due to mechanisation.
But Labour Cabinet Secretary Simeon Chelugui has said the government has no business regulating the deployment of tea plucking machines by private firms.
“The government will only push for protection of workers’ rights by the companies,” said Mr Chelugui earlier this year.
It remains to be seen how counties and the national government will tackle the issue, considering that the nominee for Labour Cabinet Secretary, Florence Tapnyole, is from Kericho.