Kenyan Tea Workers Strike Over New Technology

The union said the strike disrupted tea plucking at companies in the east African country, the leading global exporter of black tea. The commodity earns Kenya its second-largest amount of foreign exchange after horticulture.

Tea producers in the affected area said the workers were not protesting against the use of the machines per se, but wanted a new agreement to specify the portion of tea that would be plucked by the machines and how much would be picked by workers.

The strike, by a fraction of the country’s entire tea workforce, was mainly in the country’s Rift Valley province, Francis Atwoli, the secretary general of the country’s umbrella union federation, Central organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) told Reuters.

“The strike is 100 percent successful. About 80,000 workers are on strike. At all the factories I visited, the workers are on standstill,” said Atwoli, who flew by helicopter over the farms.

“We need to sit down with employers and do away with the machines as they will make our members to lose their jobs.”

It was not immediately clear exactly how much production had been affected by the strike.

At Nandi Tea Estate, a small-sized tea producer, there was a slow turn-out by workers in the morning.

“Tea production was not badly affected,” Sigot Esbai, a senior manager at the farm told Reuters.

Esbai said his company has one factory producing 106,000 kg of tea a day and produced 95,000 kg due to the strike.

He said the tea producers had secured a court injunction to stop the industrial action, until both parties sit down to hammer out a new deal on the use of the plucking machines.

Esbai said when the machines were introduced in 2005, the two sides struck a deal to review the agreement every two years and the previous deal had lapsed.

“The machines are cheaper to run and pluck more leaves than humans,” Esbai said.

The lion’s share of Kenya’s tea is produced by Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) while companies produce the remainder.

The KTDA produces over 60 percent of the country’s total tea output, and serves more than 500,000 small scale farmers and manages 65 tea factories employing about 4 million Kenyans. Reuters