20 February 2023

Workers on British-owned Kenyan tea farms report sexual abuse – but this is just the tip of the iceberg

More than 70 women working on plantations told the BBC they had suffered from sexual harassment.

An undercover investigation by the BBC has reportedly revealed sexual abuse on British-owned tea farms in Kenya. According to the joint investigation by BBC Panorama and BBC Africa Eye, women producing tea for major brands have been pressured to have sex with their bosses in return for work.

The BBC says more than 70 women who work on the plantations told the broadcaster they have suffered some form of sexual harassment at work. Secret footage captured as part of the investigation shows the moment a recruitment manager for Scottish firm James Finlay & Company corners an undercover investigator and demands sex during what was supposed to be a job interview for work on a tea farm.

Following the investigation, James Finlay and Co told the BBC it had suspended and barred the employee from its tea farms and reported him to the police. The company also told the broadcaster that it is investigating whether its Kenyan operation has “an endemic issue with sexual violence.”

James Finlay and Co is the second largest tea company operating in Kenya’s Rift Valley and supplies tea to Sainsbury’s and Tesco supermarkets. Responding to the findings, Sainsbury’s told the BBC the “horrific allegations have no place in our supply chain,” while Tesco said that it is in “constant dialogue” with the company to ensure “robust measures” are taken.

Separate video reveals two managers sexually harassing an undercover investigator at a tea farm which was, at the time of filming, owned by British Dutch company Unilever. 

Unilever told the BBC it is “deeply shocked and saddened” by the allegations, and employees who breached its Code of Conduct have been dismissed, and any criminality reported to the police.

Unfortunately, when it comes to mass-produced commodities across the world, oftentimes, the means of production comes at the cost of woeful working conditions, abuse and human rights violations. 

Take cobalt, for example – a key component for lithium batteries – where 60% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where large numbers of unregulated mines use children as young as seven as miners. There they breathe in cobalt-laden dust that can cause fatal lung ailments while working tunnels that are liable to collapse.

In Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, countless sexual assaults took place in factories where jeans were produced by brands such as Levi’s. Women known as “the dailies” – unemployed cutters and machinists looking for a few hours of work – endured repeated harassment and sexual assault to secure a daily wage of just £6.

These instances are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to assault in the workplaces of impoverished countries, where regulations and auditors are scarce, allowing almost anything to be swept under the rug with little to no effort at all. 

Fortunately, these aforementioned occurrences have all come to light, but as we all know, there are thousands more cases like these where these vile acts will continue to run rife with little to no intervention.

  • Writer Chris Saunders
  • Banner Image Credit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

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