‘Hostile investor’ Tata ‘squeezing Magadi people dry’

The Tata Chemicals management reportedly promised to do ‘their level best’ not to sack the locals. “On the contrary, management did their level best to sack our people,” said Elijah, who spat out as if to get the bitter memory out of his system

By Kajiado Star team

On the day we visited Tata Magadi Chemicals, the area was under heightened security. Our hosts had warned us to expect thorough scrutiny at the main entrance.

When we told the security personnel that we were going to Oloika – which is just past Tata’s jurisdiction – we were sent on our way with a firm warning; “Do not stop at the Magadi Shopping Centre!”

It was approaching twilight and Magadi shopping centre, as we passed through it, was eerily quiet and deserted. Word had gone round that the community living in Magadi was planning a major demonstration, to protest the sacking of locals from the company. This informed the tension and the heightened vigilance by the security personnel.

While the restructuring – informed by the layoffs – were imminent, the local community never thought it would cut that deep, at least that is what they told us.

Our hosts, who received us at the Oloika trading centre, told Kajiado Star that 28 people from the local community had been sacked in the restructuring.

They informed us the 28 represented 90 per cent of the local community who are employed by the company.

“Out of the 150 people who were sacked, 28 are from only one ward – Magadi – which is a disproportionate figure when you consider that others are drawn from the rest of the country,” said Silas (not his real name). Our respondents requested that we do not name them as they feared reprisals from the company and so that they could speak freely.

Of those sacked, 11 are from Olkeri, four from Olkiramatian, 11 from Oldonyonyokie and one from Shompole.

“We read mischief in the sackings as the management had assured our people that they would not be affected by the sackings,” said Martha. “So, for them to go against their word and effect the sackings, we can only interpret this as a form of punishment on the community; they are squeezing us dry”.

The people who were sacked, we were told, are looked upon, not only by their families but by the community at large. “They are pillars of the community as they are the only salaried people in the community. Ours is a very poor community without any other source of livelihood,” explained Joash adding that all the sacked people were being housed by the company.

The affected employees had to pack up and leave the company houses with immediate effect, yet, they have children presently attending either Magadi primary or Magadi secondary schools.

Those children, we learnt, would have to be pulled out of school to face an uncertain future in the villages, as the two schools do not have boarding facilities.

We were also informed of a certain case, where an employee had opted to be cycling from home to work so that he could donate his company house to 14 school children from the community.

“These are not his children, but he sacrificed himself so that children from his village can easily access schooling,” said Silas.

“We are at a loss as to how these children will continue with their education as they will be forced to vacate the house. That is how unfeeling Magadi Chemicals is.”

That is not all, community members fear that local women who had been employed to water trees by the company, also face imminent sacking.

“We have it from very good authority that these poor women are also targeted for sacking,” explained Martha, sadness etched all over her face.

“This would be an absolute tragedy, as the only reason they were employed is because they are poor destitute widows, who have no other means of supporting their families.”

About a month and a half ago, when news of the restructuring became apparent, representatives of the community requested for a meeting with company officials.

The community was represented by chairmen of the group ranches, chiefs from all the five locations, a youth leader, two women reps, a representative from people with disabilities and the area MCA.

It is at this meeting that the Tata Chemicals management reportedly promised to do ‘their level best’ not to sack the locals.

“On the contrary, management did their level best to sack our people,” said Elijah, who spat out as if to get the bitter memory out of his system.

The restructuring process officially kicked off on July 12, with the affected employees being given a one month’s notice that their positions were not guaranteed.

In the letter seen by Kajiado Star, the company gave various reasons for their action, which included rising costs of doing business as well as rising energy costs. The Covid-19 pandemic was also cited as one of the reasons for the redundancies.

“The company has continued to experience increased operational challenges from bloated workforce, spread across the organization,” said the letter.

“This has led to a steady increase of payroll and other staff related costs thereby strangling our tough measures to increase the fixed costs…”

A month later the dreaded severance letter arrived. “We regret to inform you that your position has been impacted by the restructuring process and your employment with Tata Chemicals Magadi is terminated on account of redundancy, with effect from August 12, 2021,” read the letter.

Among other things, the sacked employees are to be paid one month’s salary in lieu of notice, one-month salary ex gratia payment and pension benefits as per provident fund rules.

“The clearance shall include handing over all company property, staff medical cards and vacating the company house,” added the letter.

Following the layoffs, the local community resolved to press the company to rescind the sackings and abide by the rules of the Community Development Agreement signed on January 2019.

“How can the company claim to be operating at a loss yet soda ash, their main raw material is self-renewable. They also don’t pay for the water which comes from the Nguruman Escarpment,” said Silas.

“They are getting all these benefits from the community, including the land they currently occupy, yet they treat us like vermin.”

He added that people from the local community have been receiving the short end of the stick, from the company. “There are certain departments that are no-go zones for locals, such as the Community Office, Human Resource and Finance.

They also have an unexplained aversion to employing educated locals. If this isn’t a calculated plot to put down, then I don’t what it is,” he said, bitterness showing in his young face.

Our efforts to reach the management of Tata Chemicals, to give their end of the story, were not fruitful as the email we sent to them is yet to be responded to.

Magadi Ward MCA Joseph Masiaya promised to get back to us but to no avail. Kajiado West MP George Sukuyia, on his part, told Kajiado Star that he plans to convene separate meetings with the community and another one with the management of Tata, with a view to solving the matter.

On July 14 Kajiado Governor Joseph ole Lenku, called Tata a ‘hostile investor’ and threatened the company with unspecified action should it sack locals.

Meanwhile the aggrieved people of Magadi have held two demonstrations, one in Magadi and another one in Kajisado, and which were violently dispersed by police.

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