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Minors engaged in hard labour in tea farms

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ANITA CHEPKOECH

By ANITA CHEPKOECH
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Minors are being enlisted to do back-breaking work for meagre wages in tea farms, the Saturday Nation has learnt.

School-going teenagers as young as 15 weed up to one acre of tea bushes in a day, a daunting task that has pushed some to use bhang in the belief that it can help them gain the strength needed to complete the job and earn a day’s salary of only Sh250.

In our visit to the tea farm, we find a number of boys slashing through Kaproret Estate, which belongs to James Finlay Kenya Ltd, a subsidiary of the Swire Group of London. Stretching his hand to greet us, we notice blackening blisters on Martin Otieno’s hand (not his real name).

The 17-year-old student at Kericho Day Secondary School is one of scores of minors working on informal contracts to earn the meagre, yet much-needed money to pay fees and supplement their family income.

“This holiday, I decided to find a job to support my parents in raising family income due to the challenges they go through in paying school fees, food and many other requirements,” said the young man.

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In the course of job-hunting, he tells us, his friends told him that they were working. When he showed interest, they led him to a subcontractor who hired him on the spot.

An unknown number of contractors are hired by James Finlay, who are paid between Sh600 and Sh700 per worker. The contractors, however, pay the workers they hire less than half of this amount.

James Finlay, which is facing financial difficulties and is even shutting down its flower section in phases, has resorted to using contractors as a way of reducing labour costs.

Slashing of bushes, tea picking, tea pruning, weeding and factory jobs are some of the opportunities available. Whereas tea picking is paid based on the number of kilos one harvests, the rest attract between Sh250 and Sh300 a day.

“The subcontractor told me ‘come with your slasher tomorrow’, so I went ahead and bought the tool,” narrated Otieno. “It takes time before tools can be issued to contracted workers, so if you desperately need a job, you better buy your own,” he adds.

Protective gear like industrial shoes, gloves, aprons and helmets are a luxury here; the puffy blisters and scars on their hands and feet are a testimony.

Lazima uvumilie (You must endure). And if you get hurt in the course of your work, like if you get a sprain or a cut, your foot the hospital bill yourself,” he explained, noting that he had already endured three weeks of hard work.

The story of James Sanya (not his real name), 15, is moving, especially when told in his shrill, yet- to-break voice. His parents were laid off from the company’s flower farm a few months ago as he prepared to sit his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams. They did not even have money to transport their property home from the company’s workers’ quarters, which they were required to move out of after being laid off.

He borrowed some money from his parents and bought a slasher.

“When the company lost stability, I started this job as I had to bring some flour home,” says the teenager. “I go to work from 7am to midday. In a week, we agreed that the contractor will be paying me Sh1,300, but there are delays. I have been given two weeks’ pay out of the four I have worked. They gave me Sh2,600,” he explained.

Selected to join Ingotsi High School, he is currently trying hard to get his Form One fees. He hopes to have raised enough to bargain his way into the school by the reporting date.

The teenagers at times spend three days covering a day’s job, meaning that they end up earning less than Sh100 per day. That is why smoking bhang has become common among tea industry workers – as they believe that it helps boost their energy. Circulation of the “weed”, said to be sourced from Western Kenya, is an open secret. The teenagers, too, have picked up this silently practised tradition.

Alejandro Kibet (not his real name) admitted to using bhang. The 18-year-old student at Chemamul Boys in Bomet County says he has taken up two contracts, weeding and slashing, which call for extraordinary energy to clear in a day so as to earn Sh500.

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“By the time I complete both jobs, all strength is sucked out of my body. So I use some tablets to give me extraordinary strength. I buy them from the chemist,” he said. He claimed not to know the name of the tablets, only saying they are referred to as “strength-boosting tablets”. Upon further probing, he admits the substance is bhang, which is supplied to them by the older folks in the industry.

“Once I take it, I feel incredibly energetic. I don’t even need breakfast. I go straight into weeding an acre of tea and later finish with slashing, which I consider less punishing. You are given six long lines to slash. It’s your hard work that gets you out of the place. If you really need the money, you better finish,” he said.

He adds that he is the one who introduced a number of the youngsters working with him into the business.

Although most of the teenage workers are those who stepped in to help parents who were laid off before being re-employed on contract (with reduced pay and fewer benefits), others come from the neighbouring villages like Chepchabas and Chebang’ang’.

In this subcontracting arrangement, there are no contracts signed, nor are personal documents presented. The workers are therefore not recognised by James Finlay, neither do they access any benefits deserving of a formal employee. The contractor also changes terms at will because there is no formality, and therefore no way for anyone to seek redress in court. Nothing, even the scratch marks made by tea bushes on their legs, can help them prove they work at James Finlay.

Kibet, for instance, has never been paid for weeding since he started working this holiday, an amount he approximates to be Sh8,000.

“We have no say here because there are no written agreements. We are just desperate for money. We just follow what they say, lest you lose the opportunity,” said the 2020 candidate who is seeking to clear a fee balance of about Sh21,000, before he embarks on finding his final year’s fees. He has stopped depending on his parents so they can focus on his younger siblings.

He recalls last holiday when he cut his big toe with a hoe as he worked in open shoes. He had to painfully cough up Sh1,500 for treatment.

“Slashing has its risks too. You can be attacked by snakes, so you have to be careful because the subcontractor does not care. All they want is for the daily assignment to be complete. Payment comes later,” he says.

Just like his peers, Ben Omolo (not his real name), 16, a student at Uber Boys in Homa Bay County, pushes himself to earn the Sh250 a day. The job, he says, is hardly manageable, “but you have to work hard for life isn’t easy either”.

“I find it so hard because we have no protective clothes. Just like every other worker, we slash without protecting our hands, weed without gumboots, or raincoats when it rains,” he says.

The teenagers’ experiences point to a stark exploitation of underage citizens against the International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards.

However, James Finlay’s Corporate Manager Sammy Kirui denied that children were being employed in the company.

“Contractors are not allowed to employ children under any circumstances. They sign a commitment to abide by our rules and regulations before commencing work. Those found flouting the rules are deregistered promptly,” said the manager.

Further, contractors are required to register their employees with estate managers, and have National Social Security Fund (NSSF), National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and insurance for their employees upon being awarded the tender.

Despite this, the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) has accused the company of not putting in place modalities to ensure these commitments are adhered to. KPAWU Kericho branch Secretary Dickson Sang says the contractors seem not to be bound by any law.

“They just bring in anyone from anywhere, they are paid some figure by the company and they retain some amount and they decide how much to pay the vibarua (labourers),” Mr Sang says.

“Our CBA with Finlay requires them to pay the employees Sh612 minimum wage per day. But you find that they give the contractor the same amount of money, which they mostly slash by more than half,” said the unionist. He added that the labourers are paid through M-Pesa or in cash.

Names changed to protect minors

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Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard

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Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.

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However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

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Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow

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Drastic life changes affecting mental health

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Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.

KBC Radio_KICD Timetable

Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.

Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.

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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020.  It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.

A study by Dr. Habil Otanga,  a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says  that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.

KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.

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Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.

As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.

“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”

Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.

Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”

Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.

“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.

Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.

Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.

She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.

Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added

Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and  also engage in   reading that would  help expand their knowledge.

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