Thika town, located 50 kms north of Nairobi, is the place that inspired Elspeth Huxley's famous autobiography, Flame Trees of Thika. The colonial writer depicted the grace, beauty and grandeur of the land where her family made their home, away from her native England. But Thika today would inspire a very different story. The "flame trees" have lost their glitter, if not altogether cut down.
What gives Thika its glory today are the gory stories that abound in the pineapple plantation owned by Del Monte Kenya Limited, a subsidiary of Del Monte Royal Foods Limited of South Africa. The giant food processing company has been at the centre of a growing row that has pitted it against human rights activists and trade unionists.
It was all triggered by the mauling to death of a man in March this year by Del Monte dogs, after he allegedly attempted to steal pineapples. This was the second such killing in 20 years. In 1980, a nine-year-old girl was killed when the Del Monte guards unleashed their dogs on her.
Scores of other people have since been attacked and seriously injured by the German Shepherds that guard the 13,500-acre fruit farm which produces 300,000 tonnes of pineapple annually. The pineapples and juices are canned for export to Europe, USA, and Japan.
The decision by the company to use dogs has been criticised by many people. But the company has not been moved. Formerly called Kenya Canners, the 40-year-old farm was bought by Del Monte in 1988. The strong 6,000 workforce is hugely casual, contravening labour laws which demand that a worker get full employment after three months.
The Kenyan MP, Stephen Ndicho, a former Del Monte worker himself, and whose constituency now covers the farm, has criticised the policy of employing predominantly casual workers. He says the policy "ensures that workers do not enjoy terminal benefits even after decades of toil".
A weak trade union movement in Kenya, coupled with unfair colonial laws still in place, have made it easy for hard-nosed employers to thrive on cheap labour and high profits. Poor industrial relations have placed a considerable strain on Del Monte Kenya. There is now an orchestrated campaign, spearheaded by the Italian lobby group, Centro Nuovo Modello di Sviluppo (CNMS), to...