Some are opting to send their permanent staff on early retirement then rehiring them later as casuals, sparking an outcry from the workers umbrella body, Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). It has termed the move exploitive.
“Hiring the workers afresh on contract denies them privileges such as housing, medical and leave allowance, which they enjoyed when they were on permanent basis,” says Mr Joshua Oyuga, KPAWU, national treasurer.
He adds that the crisis in the industry has been complicated by some tea companies in Nandi and Kericho Districts, which have rendered hundreds of their workers redundant and diversified to cultivation of eucalyptus trees as a source of fuel, to cut down on high electricity costs.
However, the companies have defended the move, arguing that it helps to preserve jobs for their employees, besides helping them cut down on the increased cost of production.
“The tea industry, like any other sector, is faced with financial constraints due to the global financial crisis. Electricity and fuel costs among other factors of production have skyrocketed, and placing workers on contract rather than sacking them is the only way out,” said a manager of one of the tea companies, who declined to be named.
The introduction of tea plucking machines, which has resulted in the sacking of workers, has further added to the woes of the sector.
Mr Oyuga says that more than 5,000 workers have been declared redundant by various tea companies due to cost cutting measures, while those remaining are being underpaid, contrary to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) entered with the union.
“Most of these industries are violating CBA arrangements. It is against the Act to send workers on early retirement and later hire them as casuals on less wages,” he said.
The new CBA was signed by the management of the tea companies and KPAWU and witnessed by the Kenya Tea Growers Association director, Gideon Too, and the Central Organisation of Trade Union (COTU) secretary general Francis Atwoli.
In the agreement, tea pluckers are to receive Sh7.67 per kilo, translating to Sh500 a day, while pruners are to be paid Sh10.60 per tea bush. But, Mr Oyuga says, currently workers are forced to pluck 70 kilogrammes of tea leaves at Sh3.50 a kilo, contrary to the agreement. The unionist is, however, reluctant to disclose tea companies involved in the violation of the CBA, awaiting negotiations on how to resolve the matter.
“The companies are required to issue a three month’s notice on any changes it wants to introduce on the CBA signed with our union,” he said.
The looming controversy between the multi-national tea companies and KPAWU emerges when tea production in the country dropped by 35 per cent for the first quarter of last year. According to Tea Board of Kenya reports, tea production in the country has dropped in the last three years while the global supply was still high at 200 million kilogrammes. Earnings from the sector dropped from Sh49 million in 2005 to Sh43 billion in 2007, calling for urgent measures to be undertaken to improve the country’s tea industry.