The period from September to March is the peak season for tea growing in Kenya and, therefore, a time when extra help is needed to cope with the sudden rush of leaf that needs to be plucked. Traditionally, employees bring in their relatives as ‘helpers’ and, since pay at the end of the month is calculated according to the kilos picked, everyone aims to pluck as much leaf as possible.
On a large scale, the tea estate benefits from extra hands to pluck leaf during the peak season whilst the worker’s family is able to earn extra income. The big concern, however, is that these ‘helpers’ are usually under age and their involvement in tea plucking for pay breaches Kenyan law and the international labour organization standards.
This trend has been in existence for long in tea growing areas in Kenya. Last year a shocking story of how tea estates in Limuru were hiring school going children of as young as ten years to pluck tea for them and paying them a pitiful 50 Ksh daily exposed the rot that has existed for long in the tea industry. Women who produce most of the tea grown in Kenya have been complaining that their contribution to the industry, which is the country's leading foreign currency earner, has always been downplayed.
While most smallholdings are owned by men, it is a common practice in Kenya that more of these farms are run by their wives, who play such crucial roles as mobilizing farm workers, participating in tea picking, weeding and tending farms, yet they have put up with discrimination and exploitation in the tea estates.
The tea industry raises a number of health and safety issues. Tea plucking can be hazardous work, resulting in back pains. Workers who cultivate and pluck tea are exposed to toxic pesticides and insecticides, insects and snakes. The work is physically demanding, because pickers must carry the bags of tea to the collection points.
Improper use of chemicals, due to lack of knowledge among the sprayers is a problem that often occurs on tea plantations. As many workers on tea plantations live with their families on the tea estates, lack of adequate housing and sanitary facilities are health and safety issues that are particularly relevant for the tea sector.
Concerns have also been raised over insufficient remuneration for tea-farm workers. On average, workers who are mostly casual workers get four shillings per kilogramme of green leaf, while salaries of permanently engaged team leaders and supervisors range within 3000 shillings and 5000 per month, depending on experience and employer.
One institution however has made it their business to ensure tea production in Kenya follows the internationally expected standards and change the grim picture that is portrayed in tea producing zones in Kenya. Ethical Tea Partnership commonly referred to as ETP is a non-profit alliance of tea companies that aims to guarantee that the tea sold by its members is produced in a socially responsible way.
Since it set base in Kenya in 1997, many tea producers, packers and blenders have hopped on board with the realization that failure to get certification from ETP would spell doom to their teas.
Negative media coverage on, for example, working conditions for women and children on tea estates have greatly influenced EU sales and EU consumers have consistently demanded more information about where the tea they consume come from and how it is produced. As a result, since 1997 a few large tea-packing companies started to work together, in what is now called the “Ethical Tea Partnership” (ETP).
The ETP since then has been striving for improvement of the social conditions under which tea is produced by monitoring and regulating the living and working conditions on the estate, or in the garden or factory of a tea producer. “Some of these violations happen consciously or unconsciously and we have been proactive in letting the tea producers know that tea has to be produced ethically,” says Ms Sarah Roberts Executive Director of ETP.
It is customary on tea estates in Kenya to search staff leaving the factory to guard against theft of company property. Security staff run their hands over an employee’s clothes to check there is nothing hidden underneath – often an uncomfortable situation for female employees when this is done by men. ETP has been negotiating with estates to ensure that a female staff member is always on duty as workers leave at lunchtime and at the end of the day.
It’s a policy which has minimised embarrassment, improved labour relations and proved cost effective for the factories, as they have switched male and female staff on the rota instead of hiring additional staff, a key factor previously inhibiting change. Tea is produced in Kenya all year round and most factories use casual workers in addition to permanent staff.
For the casual worker, it’s a precarious existence; he or she is employed on a day to day basis and if there’s no work – if the weather changes or a machine breaks down, for example – they are sent home without pay. Instead of being paid daily, casual workers are paid at the end of the month and will only receive pay for the days that have been worked, while a permanent worker will receive a full consolidated wage regardless.
Repeatedly using casual labour is against Kenyan law and is an important ETP non-conformance and a breach of standards for all of the certification schemes.
ETP has also been awarding certificates and grading individual tea estates, including tea estates in developing countries. Tea estates are graded after the monitoring visit has taken place. Grades are determined by the Partnership after the monitors’ report has been received. Grades range from A-F: grades A-C merit a certificate, grades D-E do not, Grade F Indicates a fail and estates are removed from the members’ Approved Supplier list, unless they show that they are ready to immediately work to remedy the non-conformance.
However, ETP’s mission goes much deeper. ETP believes that the success of its activities depends on how the tea packers work together with tea growers in finding creative and practical solutions to the problems that occur and therefore stimulates tea producers and tea packers to build secure and sustainable relationships. ETP also helps tea growers become aware of consumer concerns on the one hand, and works on gaining recognition from consumers who buy and drink the tea on the other hand.
Joseph Wagurah, the ETP Regional Manager for Africa, is drawing on his experience of working in the Kenyan flower industry to change this practice. He has begun negotiating with some of the largest groups of producers to persuade them to adopt a seasonal contract, where the worker is employed between set dates, renewable by mutual agreement at the end of the period, and paid as a permanent worker would be.
“The difference between the two sets of employees is the period of employment - while a permanent worker is employed on a permanent basis, a seasonal worker is employed for a defined period of time, usually the high season,” says Wagurah.
“It will take time to introduce this because of the cost implications, but it’s worth doing.
By doing this, producers will not only be taking remedial action against their own non-conformance, but will be fulfilling the aims of the ETP. It will boost the morale of the seasonal employees and hence improve labour relations and harmony in the tea sector,” says Mr. Wagurah
ETP has also rolled out various training programmes in the country which target tea factory managers and estate supervisors. Partnering with Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) and Federation of Kenyan Employers (FKE), ETP has been training the factory managers and estate supervisors on social issue in their workplace for example how to detect discrimination and harassment and how to address it amicably.
The initiative has also sought to train them on legislations both local and international regarding for example child labour and exploitation and the requirements of the tea they produce in the international market.
Also in the offing is a partnership with GTZ the federally owned German organization that works worldwide in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development, for a pilot three year training programme in the highest tea producing zones in Kenya which include Central Kenya and Rift Valley.
Meant for the tea producers the training programmes seeks to train the producers on how to adopt to the impacts of climate change and in their own unique ways mitigate climate change. “We have identified this programme as a perfect way to move from criticism to finding solutions, and since Kenya has been feeling the effects of climate change we feel we can empower the producers to be part of conserving the environment,” points out Sarah Roberts.
Written by Bob Koigi
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