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.
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.
“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