June 28th 2017

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Unrest in North Rift as tea farmers refuse to meet pickers’ pay demands

The ruling by Justice Monica Mbaru settled the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) of 2014 dispute between KTGA and KPAWU dating back to January 2014, the day the parties began negotiations for the CBA.

By Derrick Kirakadkiraka@kenyafreepress.comWednesday, 06 Jul 2016 09:39 EAT

Smallholder is delivered to a KTDA factory. The farmers say they would rather buy plucking machines than pay court-mandated arrears. (Photo by Allan Muturi/Kenya Free Press))

The recent ruling by the Industrial Court that awarded tea pluckers a 30 percent pay rise is causing tensions in the North Rift. Operations at Williamson Kapchorua and Tinderet tea companies have ground to a halt as workers demand payment for their salary arrears.

Over 4,000 small scale tea growers in Nandi County have also said they will not honour the ruling, which the industry association, the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), has appealed. The farmers, who spoke in Nandi Hills, said they will buy tea plucking machines and do away with human pickers.

The Industrial Court last week awarded unionised tea workers employed by KTGA members better terms of employment which also includes a 30 per cent pay rise. The employees, through Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) had filed a case in court that sought to have the employment conditions reviewed.

The ruling by Justice Monica Mbaru settled the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) of 2014 dispute between KTGA and KPAWU dating back to January 2014, the day the parties began negotiations for the CBA. Justice Mbaru also ruled that the employers should provide the workers with housing, water, food and medical attention as required under the Employment Act.

The ruling saw the lowest tea picker upgraded from average incomes of Sh13,050 per month, up from Sh10,052 while the clerical level workers would earn Sh40,634, up from Sh31,257. Justice Mbaru also ruled that the new structures should be backdated to 2014 when the CBA was to take effect. Effectively, this meant an annual increment of 15 percent for the workers for 2014 and 2015.

Tea pickers are paid in terms of the kilogrammes of green leaves they pick per day. The average pay currently stands at between Sh11 to Sh13 per kilogramme of green leaves plucked. The court’s ruling would take this to between Sh14 and Sh18 per kilogramme.

However, the small scale farmers who addressed the media in Nandi Hills said that KTDA factories buy their tea leaves at between Sh15 to Sh20 per kg of fresh leaves, and they wouldn’t be able to pay the arrears demanded by the workers. In the last market data, KTDA paid farmers Sh14.50 per kologramme while multinationals paid between Sh18 to Sh22. A higher amount is paid in post-sale bonuses.

The farmers, who were led by David Sum and Simon Meto, were drawn from major tea co-operative societies in Nandi County. They said they would be enjoined in the appeal by KTGA, but if they lost, they would sack the pickers and get tea plucking machines.

“If this ruling stands, we will embrace technology by importing tea plucking machines which already work well in some companies,” Meto said. He revealed that co-operatives societies will soon begin placing orders for the machines, which he said would cut down tea picking costs by up to 70 percent.

The court further ruled that the workers should be retired at 60 years with an option of voluntary retirement at 55. Also included in the package was medical allowance of Sh30,000 and an annual leave allowance of 6 per cent in addition to a one day rest with pay in a week. There will also be transport allowance.

The move comes as a relief to the struggling tea workers whose efforts to push for better working conditions have in the past hit a snag, resulting in persistent industrial unrest and tense relationships between the workers and their employers.

In March, Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) castigated the tea sector employers for portraying the sector as earning poorly as a way of thwarting the workers union from mounting a formidable fight for better wage compensation.

“This has been a trick that whenever they sense the union will be engaging them on issues of worker’s salaries and possible compensation in terms of workers’ loss of purchasing power, suddenly they come up with a chorus depicting their inability to compensate workers and all manner of losses in terms of earnings.” COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli said.

Despite tea being one of Kenya’s largest income earners, tea workers work under harsh conditions with meagre pay. In many instances, companies do not even allow lunch breaks. The firms don't provide protective gear for the pickers, who are left to inhale fumes of pesticides used to preserve the crop. As tea is grown in cool climate, mornings are chilly too, but the firms do not cater for workers' clothing.

Studies have shown that many tea workers live in penury. There have been reports indicating that female pickers are vulnerable to prostitution and other unconventional businesses in a bid to supplement their income.

Kenya’s Employment Act states that long term casual workers are entitled to permanent contracts, which then makes them eligible for benefits like sick pay, maternity of paternity leave and paid annual leave. However, employers have devised ways of going round this by laying them off periodically and rehiring them so that every contract period lapses without any requirement for the companies to pay employment benefits.

Unionization in the tea sector is also quite convoluted, with employers having many restrictions on who can be recognised as unionisable members. However, due to increased civic engagement, many workers are now under KPAWU, which in 2014 went to the Industrial Court following disagreements with KTGA on the CBA.

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