Date Posted
27 June 2024 09:06 BST
Article Author

Strengthening trade union power in Kenya's tea plantations

By Julius Okoth

Multinational corporations usually say that their investments in the Global South will bring benefits like employment opportunities, advanced technologies, expertise and skills, contributions to the tax base and supply chains for local suppliers.

But we tax and labour rights activists know that their main agenda is to maximise profits by suppressing wages, undermining labour standards and averting regulations, then shifting those profits from the Global South to countries with lower tax rates. Kenya is not immune to the strategies that multinationals use to water down trade unions and labour movements, for example in the tea industry.

Tea plantation workers have often faced a range of abuses and violations of labour rights: the most common are low wages, lack of job security, poor working conditions, gender-based violence and discrimination.

An investigative documentary by the BBC in 2023 reported the horrifying stories of dozens of low-paid women workers who were subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation at plantations owned by James Finlay and Unilever. James Finlay responded by condemning the abuses and pledging to take action, as did other tea companies. However, this is not the first scandal in the tea industry. Unilever acknowledged that “extensive measures” put in place after earlier scandals had not prevented the abuses uncovered by the BBC. (Unilever has now sold its Kenyan tea investments).

As a labour activist I have been talking with workers in Kenya’s tea plantations and listening to their grievances since 2018. Generally I feel that unions have been ineffective in pushing back against multinationals. Over the past decade, their voices have not been strong enough to prevent the introduction of tea harvesting machinery in the tea plantations, nor to defend tens of thousands of workers, mostly women, from losing their jobs. Workers have even taken the law into their own hands to fight the introduction of this machinery.

Trade unions could provide a radical counter-balance to the power of multinationals in the tea sector, but there are obstacles which hamper them in playing this role. 

The obstacles start with legislation. Concerns about corruption in parliament are current in Kenya and it is commonly thought that members of parliament may be financed by private companies during their election campaigns in return for protecting their interests. It is very difficult to introduce new legislation, or amend or repeal existing legislation, which affects those interests. Yet it is necessary to amend the Labour Relations Act, for example so that workers do not have to give a notice period to their employers before going on strike. It should be for workers themselves to decide when and how to strike.

Then there is a power asymetry between the industry’s lobby group, the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KGTA), which is backed by the big companies, and the Kenya Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union (KAPWU) which does not even have a website.

The KTGA has persuaded the Kenya Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union (KAPWU) to sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with them instead of specific multinationals. The problem is that workers’ grievances are company-specific and having an industry-wide CBA passes the responsibility from the multinationals to the industry association, which is not the employer and can say to workers "we don't have a contract with you". I myself have had this experience in the hotel industry.

In Kenya over the last ten years there has also been a shift from permanent contracts to term contracts for workers, which are now very rampant. In the tea industry a contract might be for two or three months and it does not provide all the pension, health and other benefits of a permanent contract, so multinationals can evade these costs. During those two or three months, employers can study workers to see if they are radical or might be a problem in future. In that case, they can avoid renewing the contract.

Term contracts really affect the power of trade unions.  For a company to recognise a trade union, fifty per cent of workers must be members of that union, but to join a trade union there is a subscription fee and most people feel: why should I pay a subscription for two or three months? They prefer to wait and see if the contract will be renewed or not.

The tea companies can avoid direct contact with workers by subcontracting services like tea plucking or security on the tea farms to contractors. Often these contractors are proxies of the multinationals and run by people who work for them: this can enable a multinational to evade statutory contributions to the National Social Security Fund (which are paid half-and-half by the employer and employee) and the National Industrial Training Authority Levy.

For Kenyan trade unions to provide a radical counter-balance to the power of multinationals in the tea industry, and in other sectors, several things are needed. Firstly, trade unions must be workers-owned, workers-led and workers-centered. For example, people who register a trade union must be people working in that industry.

It needs to be easier to register a trade union. At the moment the government consults the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) on whether or not to allow new trade unions, which also have to be vetted by the National Intelligence Service. An applicant has to show that those workers are not in an industry where there is an existing trade union. All this can mean that more radical voices are marginalised.

Trade unions in Kenya are not very horizontal, in my opinion: there’s a “messiah mentality” of workers looking to senior union officials to organise them. We need more of a movement mentality and less bureaucracy. Workers who are paying their subscriptions need to feel at home when they go to a trade union office, not as if they are a patient visiting a doctor.

Trade unions must not rely on external funding or donations, for example from international organisations. Donations are good to some extent, but they can create dependency syndrome. Financial independence enables a trade union to advocate for its members, make decisions in their interests and plan for the long term without being beholden to external interests that may conflict with its mission and values.

With a reliable income stream from members’ subscriptions, the union can invest more in member education, organizing campaigns, legal support and infrastructure development, all of which contribute to its long-term stability and effectiveness. Other unions should aim to acquire assets which can be a source of income, like the National Union of Teachers which owns buildings that it can rent out.

The ability of trade unions to support their members is particularly important because when a worker is sacked, a tribunal case can take five years in the Kenyan legal system so that it becomes a question of survival for the worker.

Members are more likely to actively participate in the union's activities when they see their dues being used effectively to support their needs and goals. I feel there is often a disconnect between workers and trade unions: workers are paying their fees each month without meeting even one of the leadership of that trade union. There also has to be financial transparency, particularly around the elections of union officials where it is not always clear when the money is coming from to pay for campaigns.

We need more solidarity and collaboration between workers themselves, for example between tea workers in Kenya and those in India or Sri Lanka, not just collaboration at the level of senior officials of trade unions.

Unions can hold companies accountable for their actions and advocate for improvements where necessary, but to have meaningful dialogue there needs to be a culture of openness rather than blaming of workers by companies. By building partnerships based on mutual respect and shared goals, unions can contribute to sustainable solutions that benefit workers, employers and society as a whole.

Julius Okoth is a social justice and labour rights activist and co-ordinator of Kenyans for Tax Justice.



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