Indian tea picker

Allegations of sexual harassment taking place on Kenyan tea estates have been circulating for over a decade

Revelations about sexual abuse taking place on Kenyan tea estates are “unsurprising”, campaigners say.

A recent BBC investigation found several cases of sexual harassment happening on Kenyan tea farms owned by major suppliers selling into the UK market, including Unilever and James Finlay & Co.

The BBC Africa Eye and Panorama documentary found more than 70 women had been abused by their managers over the years at plantations operated by former PG Tips and Lipton owner Unilever, as well as James Finlay, which supplies tea to Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

The findings of the investigation were “unfortunately unsurprising” given previous exposés of sexual abuse in Kenyan farms, claimed Fiona Gooch, policy advisor at Transform Trade.

“The power imbalance between those offering jobs and the many hundreds of workers who want jobs means that internationally workers in labour-intensive sectors experience unfair and abusive treatment, ranging from harassment to poverty pay, sub-standard food, to loan arrangements resulting in types of forced labour,” said Gooch.

“The Kenyan criminal justice system appears to be unwelcoming to victims that have crimes to report but who need to maintain their jobs at all costs.”

Reports of systemic sexual harassment at farms in Kericho, Kenya, have been around since 2008. In 2011, research by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission found several violations of labour and human rights at tea estates in the region.

Unilever amped up efforts to improve the safety of female workers on its Kenya tea farms in 2014 by introducing a new sexual harassment framework and workplace reporting system.

The company, which sold its business in Kenya while the BBC undercover investigation took place, said it was “deeply shocked and saddened” by the accusations.

Campaigners are urging tea brands to “go the extra mile” to increase transparency around their risk-prone supply chains in Kenyan tea estates.

“In 2018 a handful of tea brands made a good start publishing their supplier list, but more tea brands need to do likewise and regularly, particularly if they are making claims that their tea is ‘ethically sourced’,” said Joanna Ewart-James, executive director at Freedom United.

The group urged tea brands to publish the names of the tea estates and factories they bought from, along with an email address to lodge complaints to make it easier for workers experiencing any type of abuse to speak out.

“Then those workers and local groups with the courage to complain have an somewhere to go,” Ewart-James said.

“If and when brands publish their supplier lists, local groups who have been unable to prompt improvements with intransigent factory management can contact the international brand to report treatment which breaches its codes of conduct.

“This small change could have a massive impact on cleaning up abuses in the tea sector.”

James Finlay & Co ended its contract with the Kenyan company exposed in the documentary.

Both Tesco and Sainsbury’s said they were taking the allegations seriously and were in talks with James Finlay & Co to ensure “robust measures” were taken.

“These horrific allegations have no place in our supply chain,” Sainsbury’s said in a statement.

UK supermarkets and suppliers have been increasingly under the microscope for their failure to strengthen due diligence procedures in value chains operating in high-risk countries – including regular audits that help tackle issues like pay exploitation and sexual abuse.

Last December, Tesco was sued in UK courts by a group of Thai factory workers claiming to have been subjected to appalling work conditions while working in a factory that made garments for the grocer.

And earlier last year, it emerged that fruit pickers working in Portuguese farms exporting berries to British supermarkets like Waitrose and M&S were forced to work long hours for less than the minimum wage.