Tea farmers in Meru County want the proposal to increase their monthly pay on green leaf deliveries shelved until charges for pickers are regulated.
The famers fear that if the monthly payment is reviewed upwards, tea pickers will hike their charges, which will lead to a further exploitation of the grower.
Tea growers are at the mercy of tea pickers who operate in cartels just like elite brokers at the auction. They demand Sh12 per kilo from the Sh16 the farmer is paid each month.
Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a raft of measures aimed at reforming the tea sector, including restructuring the management of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and increasing farmers' monthly pay-out per kilo by at least 50 per cent.
The President also announced that a special fund will be created to enable famers to access affordable credit but did not issue any directive regarding tea pickers.
While welcoming the proposed changes, a cross section of farmers in Meru said the monthly increments should wait until charges for tea picking are regulated.
"We appreciate the President's initiative but if the monthly pay is increased to say Sh20, the pickers will demand Sh15. We first want a fee for picking fixed before any increase," said Jason Nteere, the chairman of the Mugumone tea buying centre in Githongo, Imenti Central.
PICKER THE BOSS
He said after paying the picker, the farmer is left with only Sh4 per kilo, which caters for cess, taxes, farm inputs and personal expenses, leaving him with nothing. The annual bonus goes into payment of loans after which farmers take new ones, confining them to a vicious cycle of poverty, he added.
"It is sad that the farmer is at the mercy of the tea picker who, in the current arrangement, is the boss which should not be the case. We must reclaim our position as tea owners by agreeing on a rate that we will all pay the pickers," said Clifford Gikunda, another farmer.
Mr Raphael Kiruja, a tea picker from Nkubu in South Imenti, said they will demand an increase in payment, adding that they will not allow the introduction of tea picking machines in the area.
A LO OF WORK
He said they do a lot of work since they harvest in extreme weather conditions, exposing them to health hazards.
But Mr Paul Ringera, a director at Githongo Tea Factory, accused the pickers of holding farmers at ransom since they know they are in high demand.
"Introduction of picking machines was shelved after workers' unions opposed them since most of the workers would be rendered jobless. In areas where the machines are used, the charges for manual picking range between Sh6 and Sh8, which is reasonable. But in Meru they charge up to Sh13 a kilo, leaving the farmer with only Sh3," Mr Ringera said.
With the best quality obtained from two leaves and a bud, manual harvesting of maintains the high quality.
"We want to maintain quality and yet reduce the cost of production which puts us in a delicate situation. We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place," said Mr Ringera.