Kenyan tea workers earn a monthly salary based on harvesting a minimum 836 kilos of green leaf. This is equivalent to the daily average of 40-42 kilos of tea workers are required to pluck in many tea lands.
Actual amounts vary from 30 to 60 kilos per day due to terracing, difficult soil conditions, and wildlife (tea gardens are a favorite of dangerous snakes).
In Kenya, multinational corporations that run large-scale estates have asked the courts to increase the plucking minimum to 1,170 kilos per month, a request hotly contested by workers who would have to pluck an average 58.5 kilos per day over 20 days to meet the minimum.
A three-judge court of appeals included the requirement in its findings, stating that yields have increased, techniques improved, and modern cultivars produce a heavier leaf.
“New tea species in the market coupled with improved husbandry has resulted in the rise of tea production. Therefore the productivity of each tea plucker ought to be revised upwards,” reads part of the judgement, as reported in the Digital Standard.
The dispute dates to 2016 when a lower court ordered growers to pay a 30 percent pay increase to Kenya pluckers. Garden owners successfully appealed the decision to the High Court and the raise was adjusted to 16 percent. In arguments before the court, estates cited low productivity given the unique conditions in Kenya.
Unlike India or Sri Lanka, Kenya’s tea gardens are sprawling, low-altitude farms where tea bushes produce year-round.
Neither the wage increase, or the increase in plucking minimums has been implemented as unions refuse to sign the agreement under the court’s terms.
“There was no research to warrant demands a tea picker should pluck more than a metric ton of leaves each month. There is no agreement between the employers and the union over the matter,” said Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) lawyer Meshach Khisa, who also serves as deputy secretary general.
In response Kenya Tea Growers Association chief executive Apollo Kiarii said the new minimum was long overdue.
“Multinational companies and other stakeholders have invested heavily in research and development to improve tea clones to yield more so workers can pluck more leaves,” Kiarii said.
Tensions heightened last week as leaders of the local agricultural union threatened to bring the matter to the attention of an international court in London where a lawsuit resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars for individual coal workers.
Khisa said the Central Organization of Trade Unions, a pro-labor law firm, is “collecting evidence to present to an international court.”
According to the Daily Nation, Hugh James Solicitors has filed seven cases at the All-Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court representing past and present James Finlays (Kenya) Ltd. tea pickers who claim that the multinational’s failure to provide safe working conditions has affected their health.
In 1998 the British government was forced to pay $2 billion to former coal miners in South Wales as compensation for health problems attributed to working conditions. Hugh James successfully litigated that case.
A KPAWU suit would argue compensation is inadequate for workers who have incurred occupational injuries and health challenges for more than 100 years. The union is seeking details from former workers in Nyamira, Nandi, Kiambu, Bomet, and Kericho counties injured or experiencing work-related health issues.
Silas Njibwakale, chairman of the Sotik Branch of the Kenya Tea Growers Association, said claims against several multinationals are unfounded.