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December 30, 2010

Introduction of tea picking machines prove controversial in Kenya

by Henry Nyarora

A tug of war between multinational companies and Kenya Plantation Agricultural Workers’ Union over the use of tea plucking machines shows how devastating any new technology can be to the existing economic order at inception.

Despite Kenya adopting them, some tea producing countries have shunned the technology because unlike human labour, its use compromises quality of the leaf picked as they don’t select two soft leaves and a bud required to produce high level of beverages.

Some unionists claim machines are also likely to pick reptiles like green snakes and chameleons.

However, to minimise chances of getting foreign objects into the tea processing section, tea companies have engaged two workers to sort out filthy-free leaves for each machine that is usually operated by other two workers.

As much as the companies strive to maximise profits out of their business through the introduction of mechanisation, the loss of employment of at least 80,000 people who directly or indirectly depend on the industry has spawned massive resistance.

In Sotik in the Rift Valley for example, more than 18,000 casuals who directly get their daily bread as tea pickers have lost jobs due to the introduction of the machines.

In Kericho District where a majority of these multi-national tea companies are situated, more than 40,000 employees are likely to lose their jobs once the tea firms are fully mechanised.

And in North Rift, over 30,000 jobs in estates like Nandi, Kapchorwa and Tinderet are likely to go. Unionists claim that four casuals working under one machine are exploited as they are paid Sh1.60 per kilogramme instead of Sh8.43 per kilogramme paid to a single tea picker using hands.

The plantations’ workers union through Central Organisation Trade Union (Cotu) feels that plucking machines in privately owned companies were introduced hurriedly and without consultation with Kenya Tea Growers Association.

Unions representing workers in the tea sector, however, seem to agree that introduction of the mechanisation in the industry is inevitable as initially they had consented to a few machines being used on an experimental basis for their efficacy compared to human labour.

The union is said to have accepted three per cent introduction of machines but not 85 per cent as it stands now. Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli and Kenya Plantation Agricultural Workers’ Union assistant secretary general Henry Omasire say tea pickers’ union officials should at all times be consulted whenever a new technology that will affect the workforce is introduced.

“Why is the Labour minister allowing the use of plucking machines in the tea sector yet they are replacing Kenyan workers,” said Mr Omasire.

The union officials have also asked MPs from multi-national tea companies to intervene.

The Nation

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