Politics, Development and the Tea Strike in Kenya

“More than just a gathering storm in Kenya’s tea cup”

Tea Plantation Housing

The banner “theme” photograph for this blog and the inset above were taken on a James Finlay Co. tea plantation outside Kericho, Kenya only a few weeks before post-election violence swept the area at the end of December 2007. I have other pictures from the area on Flickr. This is an old story–mechanization versus manual labor. Efficiency for the firm against social costs. Foreign or multinational firms, local workers. Ethnic and class issues among owners, managers and “pickers”. (I write from Mississippi, where cotton was once king . . . )

Kenya is the world’s leading exporter of black tea. This is an important part of the overall GNP. Much tea is grown on small estates–much is also on plantations, some owned by multinational businesses such as Finlay, some owned by politicians, most notably former president Moi. Like horticulture, it provides a large number of low wage jobs with associated rural housing. Surely no one’s ideal for long term development (unless you happen to own a large farm yourself) but a lot better than nothing (and very photogenic). Over time presumably the pickers lose the basic argument to the owners of the land suitable for tea production on the inexorable logic of the firm–lower cost production.

To first-time visitors in Kericho and adjoining highlands of Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii, the well-trimmed tea bushes, dotted with pickers with extended baskets, is a sight to behold.

The visions of tea-pickers have been revised somewhat; the baskets have been replaced with gadgets that are pulled by two pickers hauling select leaves into its storage space.

But this calm view of the tea plantations is deceptive; the low hum of the tea-picking machines has been replaced by angry shouts that hit a crescendo Monday, as workers protested unemployment accelerated by machine use.

Workers at James Finlays Tea Estate operate a tea plucking machine, which has been blamed for job losses, triggering a workers’ strike. [PHOTO: VITALIS KIMUTAI/STANDARD]

Some 50,000 tea pluckers in the tea estates spread across Kericho, Bomet, Nandi, Nyamira and Kisii counties protesting the mechanisation of picking green leaf were expected to participate in the labour protest, although its success appeared partial.

The strike was called by Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) yesterday, and whose members work in tea estates under the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA).

The affected companies are James Finlays Tea Kenya, Unilever Tea Kenya, George Williamsons, Sotik Tea and Eastern Produce, among others.

Mechanical Plucking

In 2006, when Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) first called tea pickers’ strike to protest mechanisation, the area under mechanical plucking consisted of 694 hectares or 2.3 per cent of the total area under tea in the association’s 42 members estates, which has 30,000 hectares.

Then, James Finlay had 600 hectares under mechanised production, Unilever had 54 hectares while Sotik Tea had 32 hectares.

“We have tried to reason with the multinational tea companies over the issue but they have refused to listen. The only way out for us is to let workers down their tools,” said Issa Wafula, KPAWU assistant secretary general.
. . . .
Tom Okinda, a worker at a multinational tea company in Kericho County said favouritism, tribalism and nepotism were rife in employment tea plucking machine operators.

“Those retained are relatives, friends or neighbours of senior managers who have the final say in employment matters, while those who do not have any connection with the management are laid off,” he claimed.

Hellen Tangi, a businesswoman, said there were days when it was prestigious for one to work for a multinational tea firm as some of the unskilled jobs offered a good pay.

But not anymore.

“Despite raking in millions from the fertile farms, these foreigners do not care about locals working for them,” she lamented. Francis Atwoli, the Cotu Secretary General said mechanisation in the tea industry should be discouraged, as it was not good for the economy of developing countries like Kenya.

“The direct and multiplier effect of mechanisation of tea plucking and pruning in the country outweighs the implied cost-savings that employers are claiming,” Atwoli said.

Atwoli further claimed introduction of machines compromised the quality of tea thus affecting the overall auction prices. “Quality of tea is bound to drop with use of the machines since selective plucking of two leaves and a bud will not be adhered to as should be the case,” Atwoli said.

Democratic governance–one man, one vote, rather than one acre or one shilling–can support opportunities for policies that account for needs and interests of displaced workers, such as support for alternative development over time, education and training and such. Another theory of course would be that this isn’t a governance question at all and the government should have as little to do with any of this as possible other than to, say, keep the Ugandans out.

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