Kenyan tea farms that supply tea to the UK have recently been exposed as unsafe for workers. The investigative documentary by BBC Africa Eye and Panorama uncovered that more than 70 women on British-owned farms in Kenya were victims of sexual exploitation. The video revealed the supervisors on the farms, owned by Unilever and James Finlay & Co., pressuring an undercover reporter for sex. So far, three managers have been suspended.
The farms package tea for Lipton’s, PG Tips, Tesco, Starbucks, and Sainsbury’s Red Label.
A dark history
Unilever has had a history of sexual exploitation at its tea farms. Reports as early as 2008 show that workers in Unilever’s tea farms in Malawi, Kenya, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India were subjected to sexual exploitation. In addition, they were also paid low wages, forced to endure poor working conditions, and the ruling bodies were rife with unfair labour practices. Many workers on Kenyan farms are paid at or below minimum wage. However, the national rate is so low that a family’s wage isn’t liveable or sustainable.
Tea-picking is difficult manual labour. Workers have to protect themselves. Pesticides are also applied without much care for the health of the workers. They also end up with severe back pain, fractures, and more injuries from falling.
The women working in Kenyan farms have no possibility of promotions. Housing is often poor or bleak, leading to workers living in slums or shanties with poor access to basic amenities such as running water or electricity. There is also the risk of overcrowding in workers’ houses. Unmarried workers are forced to share rooms. Child labour is also a cause for concern. Because families can’t make ends meet, many children are forced to work on the farms to contribute, perpetuating a cycle of abuse and trauma.
In 2011, the same problems persisted in Unilever’s farms. Reports show that casual workers on Unilever’s farms were members of trade unions that approached them to join. Their membership fees were deducted from their salaries, but the unions didn’t always intervene when there were disputes between workers and management. Most casual labourers were at a loss because they kept paying union fees. Some workers said the management told them they were paying union fees to experience the benefits of permanent workers.
This doesn’t seem to be the case. Many casual workers are engaged for 2-month contracts lasting an average of 3.4 years at the farms. Beforehand, casual workers were engaged for 6-month contracts. But after the 2007 Employment Act, the trend of 2-month contracts began to grow. The Act made it easier to convert casual workers to permanent employees.
The casual workers also don’t get paid time off or paternity/maternity leave. This violates Kenyan labour laws, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiated between the management, and the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). Everyone gets access to the farms’ health centres. But the children of casual workers don’t get free healthcare, while the children of permanent workers do.
The housing situation perpetuated in 2011 as well. Up to five workers can share a two-room house. Single houses haven’t been provided for families with houses either. The houses also get infested with bed bugs which management never dealt with.
Workers also complained of discrimination by tribes, but management and their unions didn’t address it.
The sexual harassment of workers was flagged as early as 2007, with workers saying that male supervisors solicit sex from female workers and that if they don’t comply, they’re assigned dangerous regions. Workers are also forced to provide bribes to secure employment. In addition, workers can also be engaged on a day-to-day basis. While in other instances, reports show that workers who secured work through sex had to keep paying bribes.
In response, Unilever set up a hotline and enabled workers to report harassment to the Line Manager or Human Resource Business Partner. These avenues did nothing to alleviate instances of sexual harassment or ensure worker safety. The working conditions of these farms create a perfect storm for extortion and harassment. Unilever has been found to fraudulently influence audits to remain in business despite such poor labour practices.
In November 2019, a worker at the James Finlay farm lost an eye after he fell while picking tea, and a branch pierced his cornea. Mr James Too had been hired via an intermediary, so Finlay’s didn’t recognise him as an employee. Too had to fund his treatment and lost his eyesight in the eye. Too used to be a permanent employee, then lost his job after the farm dismissed almost 300 workers during an industrial strike in 2016 that demanded a collective bargaining agreement including a 30% pay rise. The courts demanded the workers’ reinstatement, but the farm appealed and had the workers step aside pending a hearing.
The workers were reinstated as casual labourers, earning Sh300 lower than the usual Sh600. Legally, the minimum wage was Sh612, but the farm didn’t honour that.
“The non-unionised members are overworked, underpaid and denied basic benefits, yet they cannot complain because the tough economic times compel them to toil for the meagre wages paid weekly in cash or via M-Pesa,” said KPAWU’s Kericho branch Secretary Dickson Sang at the time.
Finlay’s shut down their flower farms starting July 2018, costing 2000 workers their jobs. Workers said they had to give sexual favours to keep poorly paid positions. Male employees were extorted. They had to pay Sh100 each day to stay employed. Employers who were truck delivery drivers dealt with weeds.
In March 2022, workers at the Finlay’s were given painkillers to mask chronic pain from their unsafe jobs and forced to keep working. The farm used intimidation tactics involving the police and trying to run over a worker suing for damages over poor working conditions. 2000 workers launched a class action suit against the farm, claiming that it didn’t do enough to protect them from injuries. The farm filed an unjust injunction and targeted the workers involved in the suit.
When Katy, the undercover reporter for the BBC, got a proposition by the supervisor to get lighter work in exchange for sex, she reported the matter to Unilever’s sexual exploitation officers. They told her to follow her principles and not trade her body for a job. Unilever never revealed any information about what action will be taken against the supervisor.
She also exposed a manager at Finlay’s who had worked there for 30 years. He offered her money and a job in exchange for sex and groping. The farm later revealed that they had suspended the manager.
Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union Kericho Branch Executive Secretary, Dickson Sang, said the multinationals have banned employees from joining the union.
The problems remain the same
The latest report by the BBC shows that the farms have never improved the working conditions for Kenyan labourers. Some survivors were infected with HIV, while others fell pregnant. There is also the cover-up of the rape of a 14-year-old girl and a gang rape.
Unilever released a press statement declaring that they were “deeply shocked worked hard for many years to address the very serious issues of sexual and gender-based violence against women in the tea industry… This included improving the gender balance of team leaders, upgrading the grievance handling process, and strengthening awareness-raising and training.”
Nathalie Roos, chief executive of Lipton Teas and Infusions, suspended managers in light of the allegations and launched a full independent inquiry. Finlay’s Group managing director James Woodrow said they suspended the individuals named in the documentary and launched an independent probe.
Starbucks suspended supply from Finlay’s after news of the sexual exploitation broke. Sainsbury also announced they would no longer be purchasing tea from James Finlay.
These announcements are hard to swallow because sexual exploitation has been reported since the early aughts. Constant “shock” and regular “independent probes” do nothing to eliminate the rampant problem perpetuated by poor working conditions. With the high cost of living, companies pay their workers’ low wages to keep them desperate. This creates a crisis where organisations can take advantage of a labour force.
Four managers have gone into hiding since the expose, but should they ever be prosecuted, none of the underlying issues are resolved.
What should be done
The KPAWU Secretary General, Francis Atwoli wants the government to adopt the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention to eliminate sexual harassment in workplaces. The union also demanded that the farms stop using contractors to find labourers.
These demands ring hollow, however, when local reports also showed horrific labour practices from years back. In July 2022, a report showed that women and girls were subject to trafficking for exploitation on farms. They are also subjected to poor working conditions, the worst jobs, sexual exploitation, and forced marriages. No mandatory measures were put in place to combat this issue.
Kenyan Members of Parliament formed a committee to “look into the allegations.” National Assembly Deputy speaker Gladys Shollei said they would release their findings two weeks after making their announcement.
“Today, I’ve been reminded that slavery still exists in this nation. I cannot explain how a man has violated women in tea plantations for 30 years, and nothing has been done,” said lawmaker Beatrice Elachi.
The government has laws to protect workers from sexual harassment and gender-based violence. But cases keep rising, and the reports never stop.
Various organisations have called for the set up of a specialised unit to tackle these issues. The Stop Sex Crimes Unit is a proposal by the coalition of organisations working on sexual violence in Kenya. They include Am Kenyan, She Leads, and Usikome, among others. The other implementations they wish to see are:
That the President make a statement that the people can rely on him to protect them.
The named organisations provide, at their own cost, medical, psychosocial, and legal aid services.
The institutions implicated compensate all the victims.
Companies show why their licences shouldn’t be revoked and why their operations shouldn’t be shut down for lack of compliance.
The named companies place internal mechanisms to bring the perpetrators to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.
That the DCI conduct an extensive investigation to establish the full extent of sexual harassment in the tea farms at large.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions publishes any findings from the DCI investigations into the farms.
The offices build robust evidence-collection systems to protect women from further abuse.
That the Ministry of Labour implements ILO Convention 190 to enforce compliance.
That any companies that work with the farms suspend any business with them.
That the Witness Protection Agency protects whistle-blowers in the documentary.
What will the future hold for workers?
The Kenyan agricultural complex needs to have a reckoning. The government should provide social welfare frameworks that reduce the desperation to find work at any cost. Kenyans shouldn’t have to risk their safety, health, and well-being to survive. As demands continue for better and safer working conditions for Kenyans, the constant need for better security for women becomes draining.
“It will not be enough to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the sexual offences, but the companies should take full responsibility and compensate the affected workers for the trauma they have been subjected to,” said Dr Erick Mutai, Kericho governor.
Dr Mutai and his fellow Nandi governor Mr Stephen Sang, have been pushing for a review of the lease terms for the land currently occupied by the conglomerates. The governors are pushing the companies to start paying for the land at market rates. If this is the immediate concern of local leaders, what hope do their citizens have of ever working safely? In addition, older reports show that British soldiers took the Kericho tea farmlands from indigenous people during the colonial invasion. The present-day British government refused to engage in talks to address reparations.
The government’s hypocrisy and consistent failure to address the needs of workers shows that an overhaul of the labour sector is needed. Enforcing international labour standards and paying livable wages are the bare minimum. Kenyan workers deserve much more from the people responsible for enforcing these standards. And consumers need to do better due diligence to ensure that their tea doesn’t rely on sexual exploitation to be prepared.
Gloria Mari is a culture writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes on art, film, literature, health, and the environment. She has previously written for Kenya Buzz, People Daily, The Elephant, and Kalahari Review.