They say there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, that every product and service is touched by exploitation and human suffering. Whoever they are, they’re right. The recent revelations about the abuse and violence women face on Kenya’s tea farms is the latest reminder if anyone needed one about how horrific things are for workers.
A documentary by the BBC revealed the monetary, physical, and psychological exploitation and abuse that workers and women in particular are subjected to. There are stories of coercion and gang rape and a refusal by management to act on reports. Reports of being forced to trade sex for jobs and underage girls being raped. Let’s talk about the many moving parts involved in the abuse of these women.
Patriarchy and power
Anti-feminists (misogynists, really) insist on pushing back against the assertion that we live in a society that is largely controlled by men. A society that privileges men. This documentary exposes the lie borne in that hateful rhetoric.
Seventy-five of the 100 women interviewed confirmed that they had been sexually abused and exploited at work by managers, supervisors and even their fellow workers. All of these men understood that these women were desperate and because of poverty had no options but to put up with their predatory advances, submit to their coercion and even keep quiet about it after the fact. These men understood the power they held not just in the workplace but in the social hierarchy. This is why even their fellow male workers had the confidence to violently attack and rape them while out in the fields.
Some women did go to HR to report. What they found was a man who told them to put off the advances, to not encourage the men and to not sleep with them in exchange for work. First of all, why would you require a woman who has been abused by a man to make the report to another man? What kind of messed up system is that?
All those abusive men understood the power they hold, and more importantly, the power women don’t hold. We live in a society in which men have so much social power that even reporting their misconduct results in advice about how women should adjust their own behaviour.
One woman working for Unilever says that a group of women took their report forward to the gender office and were fired for their trouble. One of the bosses was identified by a teenage girl as her rapist and nothing happened to him. Yet men continue to insist that this society does not in any way privilege them over women.
These women were abused and continue to be abused every day by their bosses and colleagues and have to go back to those workplaces every day and quietly work alongside their abusers. What fresh level of hell is that?
Beyond your usual run-of-the-mill patriarchy, another factor that has exacerbated women’s abuse is mechanization. The tea farms where the women work as casual labourers have been acquiring machines to harvest tea. About 50,000 workers were fired after they started using the machines. This makes the women more desperate for work and more susceptible to the pressures the different managers and supervisors decide to pile on them.
This is why capitalism cannot be extricated from abuse. It cannot be free from abuse. It is the labour of those workers who are paid poverty wages that generated the profits that made it possible for the companies to be able to buy their fancy tea harvesting machines. Yet they are the first to be kicked to the curb. They make all that money for the company and leave as poor as they came in. A system that prioritizes profits for the company and not the just compensation of workers only fosters exploitation and abuse.
These women didn’t just have to contend with the physical and emotional abuse, they also had to contend with the effects of the harsh labour on their bodies. These women have back problems that are so severe they have filed a class-action lawsuit. It’s not just the predatory men who are abusive but the company in general. These women complained about back pain and all they got were painkillers. One of the women began to use crutches after working at Finlay for the better part of her youth. When she got so hurt that she couldn’t work, she was fired. A few years later she went back to look for a job again and was required to trade sex for a job. Presently, her two daughters work at the same place that destroyed her body and subjected her to sexual abuse. She says they face the same struggles she did, the same abuse but they have no choice but to work there. That’s what poverty and corporate exploitation look like.
These companies view workers the same way they do machines. Workers are just human capital to be used and discarded once broken. Once they’re too physically and emotionally traumatized to work.
When they were interviewed, the companies insisted that they took the allegations seriously and after internal investigations would fire those implicated. They were in their words committed to creating working environments that are safe for women with zero-tolerance policies when it comes to sexual harassment. Yet the abuse they mete on women was not remarked on. It remains astonishing that these abusive companies imagine that they can do anything to stop the abuse of women on their farms. There is no difference between them and the rapists who work for them. None. If anything, they create conditions that support the abuse of women. They abuse the men and women and then the men in their infinite wisdom go ahead and abuse the women.
It’s true, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism but what we need to internalize without any exceptions is that there are no ethical for-profit corporations. None. Not even the one you’re thinking of. Capitalism is not compatible with human well-being. It’s not. A system that privileges profit above all else will never foster healthy outcomes. It can’t. We all need to reckon with this. We all need to educate ourselves about the evils of capitalism and the many alternatives that have been floated such as worker co-operatives. That documentary reminds us about how unifying patriarchy is. It wasn’t just the bosses who were abusive, the men who slaved alongside them had no qualms about raping them either. There can be no solidarity among workers as long as patriarchy is tolerated. We can only fight capitalism with people willing to confront the benefits accrued to them by patriarchy. Until then, no deal.
If you’d like to see the documentary, watch it here.
Opinion: Sexual Exploitation On Kenyan Tea Farms Isn’t New. It’s Time For An Overhaul Of The Industry.
Sexual Violence Against Girls In Kenya Is Mostly Carried Out By Family Members. What Can Be Done To Reduce The Risks?
10 Types Of Gender-Based Violence We Don’t Talk About Enough
How To Deal With Sexual Harassment In The Workplace
The Story Of Nestle And Sexual Harassment In The Workplace Shows How Organizations Are Insensitive To The Plight Of Victims
Don’t Just Be A Bystander: 5 Ways To Intervene And Help A Sexual Harassment Victim
How Companies Can Protect Their Workers From Sexual Harassment
Sexual Harassment: When He Tries To Sleep With You In Order To Hire You For A Job