Tea picking machines remain a sticky issue in Rift Valley politics

tea plucking machine

Workers use a tea plucking machine at the Unilever tea farm in Kericho on June 30. Unions and politicians say the introduction of tea plucking machines has rendered thousands of workers jobless.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

When he resigned as Cabinet Secretary to vie for the Kericho governor seat, Charles Keter, a close ally of Deputy President William Ruto, was supposed to be a shoo-in to succeed Prof Paul Chepkwony.

At the heart of his loss was not his lack of political acumen – because he still had it, in rallies and in door-to-door campaigns – but a machine.

Tea picking machines were thrown at the centre of the politics, including the Kericho United Democratic Alliance (UDA) nominations. Now, they are at the centre of the General Election campaigns in the South Rift.

A stand-alone machine replaces 100 workers while one operated by two people does the work of 25 workers, making the machines a bread-and-butter issue that has shaken the Rift Valley tea growing belt, especially in Bomet, Kericho and Nandi counties.

Unilever, James Finlay, Williamsons Tea Kenya, Sotik Highlands Tea, Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya and Sasini are some of the companies that have adopted mechanisation.

Mr Keter, a former Belgut MP and the first Kericho senator, was felled in the contest for the UDA gubernatorial ticket by political greenhorn Erick Mutai – a university lecturer – partly due to claims he had a stake in the tea plucking machines used by the multinationals.

Despite his unrivalled political war chest in the campaigns, Mr Keter could not wash himself of claims that he owned some of the machines.

“I do not own any of the tea plucking machines used by the multinationals. My record is clear and open on the machines, which I have been opposed to. The parliamentary Hansard report is available for perusal to those in doubt. This is an issue that has been maliciously used against me by my rivals,” said Mr Keter at the height of the campaigns.

Dr Mutai has been a major critic of the mechanisation, demanding a review of the business model adopted by the multinationals.

“I can tell you for sure that my administration would engage the players in the industry to address the matter so as to safeguard jobs,” said Dr Mutai.

The workforce for the James Finlay tea company, for example, has shrunk from the previous 10,000 to the current 6,600 according to records provided by the management.

Central Organization of Trade Unions (Cotu) Secretary-General Francis Atwoli brought the matter to the national limelight when he asked the government to have the machines withdrawn. He claimed in Bomet a week ago that more than 200,000 jobs had been lost both directly and indirectly with the introduction of the machines.

“Unfortunately, local MPs are compromised by multinationals as soon as they are elected by the people, so that they do not speak on issues affecting workers, and especially the tea plucking machines,” Mr Atwoli claimed in Kericho.

He noted that the government had failed to intervene in the matter yet the local economies were adversely affected due to job losses and lost livelihoods.

“I have repeatedly stated that if we are not careful, Bomet, Kericho and Nandi Hills towns will witness a collapse of their economies with the deployment of tea plucking machines by multinational companies,” Mr Atwoli said.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga who is the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate, has picked up the matter and promised to look into it should he clinch the presidency.

“I have all along been against the use of tea plucking machines as it leads to job losses among Kenyans. It is an issue that must be looked at,” said Mr Odinga at Ndanai Catholic church grounds in Sotik. He added that the introduction of technology should not hurt the people and the local economy.

Mr Odinga’s and Mr Atwoli’s position on the matter is in stark contrast with that taken by the government – that the companies have a right to adopt modern technologies in their business operations.

Workers’ rights

Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui said the government was engaging the multinationals to ensure that workers’ rights are protected and to avoid mass layoffs.

“It is important to note that we cannot fight mechanisation as it is part of technological advancement and a global phenomenon. Mechanisation in business is a model aimed at maximising profits and enhancing production at all levels,” said Mr Chelugui. But the government does not support laying off workers as transition from manual to mechanised process must be seamless, he added.

This comes against the backdrop of complaints by various trade unions led by the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) that the multinationals had engaged in massive layoffs in the process of adopting mechanisation.

Statistics from the Ministry of Labour show that the tea sector in the country directly employs 200,000 workers and another two million indirectly.

Agriculture CS Peter Munya directed the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to start using tea plucking machines to reduce harvesting time and curb production losses.

In the directive issued in March this year, Mr Munya said KTDA must embrace technology in a bid to return the sector to profitability for the benefit of small-scale tea growers.

“Mechanical tea harvesting is critical as it will help in reducing the cost of labour, increase earnings for farmers and protect their health,” said Mr Munya.

KTDA makes tea plucking machines and other machines through its subsidiary, the Tea Machinery Engineering Company. One machine goes for an average of Sh25,000 according to the agency’s Chief Executive Officer Wilson Muthaura.

Mr Munya’s directive is contrary to KTDA’s, which has over the years been rooting for hand plucking of two leaves and a bud that fetch higher prices at the Mombasa Tea Auction after processing. A high number of KTDA factories have offered farmers low prices due to what is said was poor plucking.

Countries like Rwanda that are new entrants in the tea sector have lately edged out Kenyan tea in the export market due to high quality production, having rejected use of tea plucking machines in favour of hand plucking.

Mr Apollo Kiarii, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) a body that represents multinationals and private tea companies said the tea plucking machines have been a major operational cost saving element for investors in the industry.

KPAWU has been a major loser in the layoffs by the multinationals as the union membership has shrunk over the years leading to reduced revenue.

Mr Henry Omasire, the KPAWU national organising secretary, argued that while other East African countries had rejected the use of tea plucking machines, Kenya has adopted them to the disadvantage of workers and lowered quality of produce.

“As a country, we have wrong economic priorities with the government failing to protect the workers, especially in the agricultural sector, where for the last two decades there have been massive layoffs,” said Mr Omasire.

He called for a review of the policies on mechanisation in the tea and flower industry so as to protect jobs, create wealth and raise the quality of produce.

“Workers have been sacked by multinationals over flimsy reasons, and they are not replaced as the companies have strategically been increasing the number of machines in their estates. Sadly, the workers who have been laid off are not compensated,” Mr Omasire added.

But Mr Simeon Hutchinson, the James Finlay Managing Director said the decision to adopt mechanisation should be looked at as a business one as opposed to an industrial issue. He said there is no way one can stop adoption of emerging technologies in a private business operation.

“Mechanisation started in 1984 with introduction of tractors on a trial basis while hand-held machines were introduced in 2003, which led to gradual phasing out of hand plucking of green leaves. Right now, virtually all operations in the tea estates are fully mechanised,” said Mr Hutchinson in an interview. “Overall, modernising our operation has been work in progress since 1924 and will continue for generations to come.”

Mr Maendeleo Chepkwony, the chairman of the Kenya Union of Small Scale Tea Owners Rift Valley chapter, said traders in Kericho town have borne the brunt of deployment of the tea plucking machines.

“Hundreds of shops have closed, second hand clothes dealers, cereals dealers and hawkers have reported reduced transactions as a result of the laying off of workers. The former workers have relocated to their homes in neighbouring counties,” said Mr Chepkwony.

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