Workers in the salt mining industry are being exploited due to lack of proper laws to guide the sub-sector, a court has said.
The court learnt that while a 250-gramme packet of salt is sold at Sh5, a company has been paying its employees Sh50 cents to pack a bale, which has 30 such packets.
Half a kilogramme of salt costs Sh10 while a bale goes for Sh150, the Employment and Labour Relations Court heard. In a bale, there are 40 such packets packed by a single employee. In total, the firm makes Sh400 from each bale while the employee gets Sh90 cents per bale packed.
The details emerged in a case 15 workers sued Krystalline Salt Limited after they were reportedly dismissed.
Those who testified, Loice Ziro Wanje and Kaingu Mwaro, said their employer kicked them out after introducing machines to do the same job they were doing.
The court found the industry is operating without proper laws, the reason employees are being exploited.
Justice James Rika said lack of proper laws has made it hard for courts to intervene whenever salt industry workers sued their employers over unfair labour practices.
“There is need to have legislative focus on the salt industry, without which some industry players will continue to manipulate wage compensation mechanisms and exploit workers, as courts look on helplessly,” Rika said.
The judge cited a case where an employee worked for 25 years but left poor, the way he was when he was hired.
By the time the employee was leaving, he had never been promoted and was not even given any token of appreciation for years of service.
“It does not appear right, that a person who has worked on same rates for 25 years, for the same employer in continuity, leaves employment without recognition and reward for the years of service, and without other routine benefits due to regular employees,” the judge said.
“This is a gap in legislation which cannot be cured by the courts.” Justice Rika noted workers in the industry do not have a strong trade union to fight their rights.
The only cure to this problem is to have Parliament come up with laws that will ensure a balance in labour practices with other industries, said the judge.
“It will take time before this labour market imbalance in the salt industry is corrected. It can be cured by Parliament through review of the current law or mitigated through robust collective bargaining. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a strong trade union representing the industry,” Rika said.
Ms Ziro said they were paid according to the number of kilogrammes packed instead of the days worked. This meant she never received anything whenever she failed to report to work.
The judge heard that after Krystalline introduced salt packing machines, workers’ earnings reduced even further.
However, the company told court the 15 walked away voluntarily. It also argued at the time the machines were being introduced, they were earning Sh3 on each bale packed but demanded Sh5.
Rika found it difficult to tabulate how much they ought to have been paid as their earnings depended on how much one packed. He said it would be difficult to calculate overtime and allowances.
He ruled that since the workers walked away voluntarily, the court would not intervene.
“They rejected the co-existence of man and machine. This is the background against which they asked for a higher piece rate, failing which they withdrew their labour, and walked away from the workplace. The respondent did not stop them from working. There was no evidence of redundancy to warrant severance pay,” the judge ruled.
He, however, noted that salt firms will continue with the mischief if nothing is done.