Striking Kenyan Workers Return to Fields and Factories

Last week 10,000 angry tea farmers in Nandi County, Kenya demanded the arrest of factory workers who left the job for a week over salary concerns, closing 11 factories. Workers are upset that employers had refused to implement a court-ordered 30% increase in wages. Government officials intervened to resolve the immediate crisis and processing resumed but the situation remains precarious.

Kenyan tea workers plucking by hand.

Kenyan tea workers plucking by hand.

Workers were upset that employers had refused to implement a court-ordered 30% increase in wages.

The immediate crisis was resolved by Labour Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie with Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Willy Bett who negotiated a retroactive 7% wage increase for 2014 and an 8% increase for 2015. All parties agreed to meet again this week to reach agreement on pay for 2016.

In Kenya, hundreds of thousands of workers are employed in producing tea, mainly on plots of land smaller than 20 acres. The tea they pluck is sold to processing facilities designed to produce large quantities of cut-tear-curl (CTC) black tea. If the tea they pluck is not processed promptly, the harvest is lost. Farmers claimed the week-long shutdown resulted in losses of $KSh300 million ($2.9 million).

Workers of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union conducted onsite demonstrations at several factories over wages. Workers are back on the job this week but the economics of commodity tea remain precarious, with prices falling for exports amid demands for higher-quality tea.

Growers maintain that out of the $KSh22 per kilo of tea sold, Sh15 goes to workers with another Sh3 to cover transport.

“When you factor in fertilizer and pesticides, this leaves the farmer with absolutely nothing,” farmer David Sum told All Africa. Sum farms two acres of tea in the Nandi Hills.

In Kenya, most tea plantations are smaller than 20 acres.

In Kenya, most tea plantations are smaller than 20 acres.

The tea companies are appealing the wage increase, stating that the additional labor costs will put them out of business. The discussion brings into focus the ongoing transition to mechanized harvesting.

Owners hope to introduce plucking machines that will reduce by 75% the labor expense. Mechanical harvesting accounts for increasing volume of the globe’s cut-tear-curl tea at the expense of thousands of jobs.

Mechanization saves labor expense and improves yield per acre as a pair of workers can harvest 10 times more leaves than can be handpicked by two people during the same period. Good weather and ever-more efficient agricultural practices have resulted in a bounty of tea this year. The surplus has driven down costs, making Kenyan tea more desirable in the highly competitive export market.

“Kenya has produced 177 million kg of tea this year, which is 72 million kg more than last year. With this huge production, Kenya is in a position to offer much competitive price to Pakistan than India,” a senior tea planter told India’s Economic Times.

Revenue from tea exports is essential to Kenya’s economy, but producing more and more tea forces down prices resulting in an unsustainable, highly volatile cycle evident for the past 10 years.

Source: All Africa, Economic Times