The Labour of Sustainable Tea

By Hannah Elliott

This week I’ve once again been moving between sites of tea production in Central Kenya, observing the rhythms of everyday life on tea plantations.

Over the past weeks of fieldwork, I’ve been noticing the ways in which the notion of ‘sustainability’ is deployed in the language of my informants. ‘Sustainability’ is, of course, a temporal concept that refers to the future and ideas of longevity and durability. Over the past decade or so, sustainability has become a buzzword, mobilised by international development organisations and, increasingly, multinational companies, including through the certified sustainability standards that are a critical focus for SUSTEIN. During my research thus far, my informants have expressed a general consensus as to what ‘sustainability’ means in the context of such certified standards for tea. In particular, they talk about the importance of taking care of the environment in order to preserve it for future generations to come.

Yet, when discussing the challenges facing the tea industry more generally outside of the specific context of certification, managers of tea farms and factories deploy the notion of sustainability and sustainable business in its more traditional sense – that is, in terms of its future profitability. One senior employee of a tea plantation and factory commented that “last year, I’m not sure people made money in tea”. A field officer working on another plantation noted that “in the future, tea business might not be sustainable”.

There are a number of reasons as to this uncertain future. A major factor is the rising cost of tea production, in particular pertaining to labour. The major sustainability standards governing tea production in Kenya (i.e. Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and UTZ) require certified producers to pay labourers such as pluckers and factory workers no less than the national minimum wage. In countries where labourers are organised through trade unions, they may be able to negotiate higher wages. In Kenya, large-scale tea producers employing labourers are typically members of the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), established in 1931 to promote and protect the interests of the plantation sector. Labourers themselves tend to be members of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). Every two years, KPAWU and KTGA negotiate a collective bargaining agreement during which pluckers’, among other tea labouers’, wages are decided. In recent years, however, these negotiations have reached deadlock; KPAWU demands a 30% wage increment, while KTGA argues that this is not viable and would render production costs too high. From KTGA’s perspective, the plucking rates demanded by KPAWU are exorbitant and unrealistic when considering the amount per kilogram paid at the factory and the Mombasa auction. Tea prices at Mombasa are said to have long stagnated at around 2 USD per kilogram. Furthermore, managers note, complying with sustainability standards introduces new costs to tea production. Employers must supply labourers with adequate protective clothing, for example, and ensure that worker housing is of a satisfactory standard. Becoming certified itself costs money in terms of extension services to outgrowers. Producers themselves must also pay for the audits through which certification is granted. Managers worry that these costs, combined with rising costs of labour and low prices at auction, threaten the viability of the sector as profit margins are rendered increasingly slim.  

In this context, many of the managers I have been speaking to consider mechanised harvesting as key to the sustainability of the tea industry. Mechanised harvesting reduces the costs of labour, since a small number of skilled employees are required to operate the machinery, significantly reducing tea producers’ reliance on hand-plucking. Reducing numbers of people employed on plantations could also free up land for cultivation, managers argue, since a good deal of land is currently occupied by lines of workers’ housing.

Tea fields with worker housing ‘lines’ in the background. Hannah Elliott, 3 November 2018

Yet mechanisation has long been a contentious issue in Kenya’s tea industry. Pluckers are anxious about the implications of mechanisation for their livelihoods; although tea plucking is generally not deemed desirable or well-paid work, it is a steady and reliable form of employment that requires unskilled labour in large numbers. Furthermore, large plantations provide workers with housing, basic services such as water, and often childcare and health care provision. While low wages have tended to mean that tea workers struggle to move out of plantation labour, work on plantations nevertheless provides some stability for those struggling in rural economies. The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union itself and the umbrella organisation the Central Organisation of Trade Unions in Kenya have protested against the prospect of mechanised harvesting and urged local governments in tea producing areas to ban companies from using machines. One former employee of a large multinational tea company operating in Kericho, a major tea-growing region of Kenya, recalled having to conduct mechanised harvesting at night because of the risk of attacks on machinery and those operating it should harvesting be conducted during daylight. While mechanised harvesting signifies sustainability for tea producers – the possibility for the tea industry to continue to grow and profit – it signifies quite the opposite for tea pluckers. Mechanized harvesting threatens to destabilise the future for many in a country where formal, and therefore stable, work opportunities are increasingly scarce.

In Central Kenya, mechanisation remains something of a future fantasy for the managers of large tea plantations and factories whom I’ve been spending time with. Most mechanised harvesting in Kenya is carried out in Kericho, the heartlands of Kenya’s tea production, and by large multinational companies like James Finlays and Unilever, with the latter reported by some of my informants to now be harvesting over 50% of their crop mechanically. Producers must first invest in replanting fields with the latest clone tea plant seedlings that have been developed to respond well to mechanised plucking. Most large estates in Central Kenya contain varieties of clone bushes that were established and planted in the 1950s and 1960s which had not been developed with mechanisation in mind. Replanting itself is a costly endeavour, and producers must endure decreased production for around five years before new plants are mature enough for harvest. Nevertheless, mechanisation is widely considered to be ‘the future’ of the tea industry among tea producers in Central Kenya and key to its ‘sustainability’, and hand plucking and long lines of workers’ housing a thing of the past.