Workers cry foul as Del Monte cuts working days to cut costs

Del Monte’s farm

A section of Del Monte’s farm. A 997-acre parcel it surrendered is yet to be allocated to the intended beneficiaries. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Workers at the American-owned Del Monte fruit processor in Murang'a County are crying foul as the firm starts implementing reduced working days for its casual labourers to cut operational costs.

The company's production manager Mr Wayne Cook has issued an internal memo indicating that working days for each casual worker will average at 13 per month.

But the memo warned that the days can be revised downwards depending on circumstances. The workers' spokesman Stephen Makau now says the days have been reduced to only three per month.

"We are suffering and we are going through hell. Our payslips are reflecting zero shillings as net pay. We cannot save and we can no longer be described as workers... maybe slaves," he said.

The workers had planned a protest march to the company's headquarters but decided to give dialogue a chance. A meeting to initiate talks has been slated for Friday.

The employees in their social media platforms complained that hard life had even transformed some workers into thieves, citing a case where three female casual workers were busted trying to sneak out laundry materials that they had stolen leading to their sacking.

Mr Makau said: “We understand the dynamics of the company and the prevailing harsh business environment in the country but more creativity and divestment can cushion us from labour misery".

The staffers are now suggesting that the company diversifies pineapple farming to embrace other crops like macadamia, avocado, french beans, bananas, sorghum cassava and green maize.

They added that the company holds more than 30,000 acres of land but only utilises about half of it arguing that should it maximise utilisation of that holding, jobs can be preserved and even increased.

"We are not in a pit yet, it is only that management has remained static in pineapple farming and processing. We need fresh produce enterprise so as to escape manufacturing costs and government harsh taxations," Mr Makau said.

He said that the workers also need fixed salary or guaranteed working days days per month that should not be less than 18.

Mr Makau said the company has also postponed implementation of the 2023 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was to take effect in April.

Del Monte is considered a critical economic driver both in Murang'a County and nationally since it directly employs 6,500 workers and another 28,000, indirectly.

Former Gatanga MP Nduati Ngugi said: "In 2021, we promised government support to Del Monte so that it could continue safeguarding employment and tax revenues interests for our economy".

“ We had promised to survey Del Monte land and renew its lease, help it with tax rebates and other policy incentives to make it more viable in preserving jobs and creating more and roll out more transformational Corporate Social Responsibilities programmes as well as increase its tax remittances."

Mr Ngugi said besides land lease dispute, Del Monte was facing an embargo of its products in some European countries as a result of negative publicity accorded it by local activists and the media.

"It is not to mean that I support cases of aggression to human rights. But we should not publish unsubstantiated claims about investments. While I will demand harsh punishment as per the rule of the law against anyone dehumanising human beings, we should only deal with proven or provable facts in our claims," he said.

The company has had a longstanding conflict with local gangs that steal pineapples from its plantation and selling them off in nearby towns.

Mr Ngugi said Del Monte is the driver of urbanisation in Murang'a South, Thika West, Ithanga Kakuzi, Kandara and Gatanga Sub counties where its workers in their tenancy, transactions and small scale investments help boost the property market index.

The company's Managing Director Stergios Gkaliamoutsas said the firm is committed to good labour practices and it strongly supports dialogue and consensus in its dealings.

He added that Del Monte will strive to operate in a manner that adds value to both local and national economy.

He said welfare issues are being addressed through implementation of the CBA noting that the firm is committed to eradication of servitude.

He said workers at the firm will have a nine per cent pay rise, adding that workers who do not reside within the company’s  premises will have a housing allowance set between Sh2,600 to Sh5,350.

He at the same time said the company generates Sh10 billion for the country in foreign exchange annually.

“We also pay Sh2.7 billion in salaries and annually purchase raw materials and equipment worth Sh4 billion locally. We also remit statutory deductions worth Sh1.4 billion annually," he said.

Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) board member Boniface Kavuvi told The Nation that Del Monte being supported to remain afloat is for the common good.

"In an economy that desperately needs employment opportunities, tax and foreign exchange, we got no choice but support Del Monte as a national asset and an important link to our friendly ally that is America. This firm must offer quality employment and welfare to its workers and be helped to recruit more," he said.

The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union Deputy Secretary General Thomas Kipkemboi said the country stands to lose heavily should Del Monte go under and prevailed on the government to protect it.

“The government has been seeking to enhance and promote industrialisation in the country but this pillar is now under threat. We have seen investors moving their enterprises and investments to other countries and it should not be time for Del Monte to fold operations. We want both the plantation and workers in a win-win situation," he said.

Federation of Kenya Employees board member Robert Muthanga said Del Monte is synonymous with the growth of Thika town and is a critical stakeholder in the push for the town to get elevated into a city; a drive that Kiambu Governor Kimani Wamatangi has vowed to midwife by 2027.