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Kenyan strike shows trouble brewing for tea giants

by Ken Olende

A strike by more than 10,000 tea pickers in Kenya in East Africa has won an 8 percent pay increase.

The workers, members of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) took action in more than 18 estates in the Kericho region.

The estates are owned by Unilever Tea Kenya (UTK), which produces brands including PG Tips. Unilever is the world’s largest tea producer, with 12 percent of the world market.

The strike, which started on Saturday 8 September, featured bitter confrontations with scabs.

The tea industry in Kenya employs 63,000 workers, but tea pickers were traditionally very poorly paid.

Interviewed about life as a tea picker, one worker said, “Life here is hard. We work continuously from dawn to dusk, come rain or shine.”

Another, who has worked picking tea for 34 years, said, “Age is not an issue because I need to work for my family. We are paid according to the amount of tea we pick and I try my best to hit 50kg a day.”

A third worker complained about illness: “We work in conditions which at times subject us to diseases such as malaria and pneumonia but there are no adequate health services.”

Since 2005 Kenya has been the world’s largest tea exporter.

In the last two years there has been a series of disputes over pay and attempts at restructuring and mechanisation of the industry. UTK itself has recently laid off 70 workers.

In a familiar “race to the bottom” argument, UTK has complained that wage rates in Kenya are already more than twice those in other African tea producing countries such as Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda.

It also objected that profits were down as production was hit by a drought in 2006.

The strike continued despite the fact that the district labour officer had declared it illegal.

Francis Atwoli, the general secretary of KPAWU, said UTK was to blame for the strike as they had not implemented a 16 percent wage increase agreed last year. The failure comes at a time when international tea prices are rising.

He said other multinational tea companies that signed the agreement had already paid the workers. Atwoli warned that if the company has not implemented the new deal by Thursday of this week, the union will take legal action.


Article information

International
Tue 18 Sep 2007, 19:15 BST
Issue No. 2069
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