It is one of the flagship plantations of the world’s biggest tea company, stretching across more than 30,000 acres of land and employing 16,000 people. But the Kericho tea estate in Kenya, operated by Unilever – manufacturer of PG Tips and Lipton – is at the centre of controversy over allegations of sexual harassment and poor working and living conditions for some employees, the Ecologist can reveal.
Some female workers at the estate suffer sexual harassment at the hands of company supervisors, according to Dutch research body SOMO. The organisation, which monitors the operations of multinational companies, says it has also uncovered ‘deplorable’ housing conditions at the Kericho plantation, harassment of workers belonging to trade unions, and a number of problems relating to the increasing casualisation of the estate’s workforce.
SOMO makes the claims about the plantation – which is certified by the Rainforest Alliance – in a report due to be published later this month. Previous reports by SOMO, and by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), alleged 'rampant' discrimination and sexual harassment of women at the Kericho estate, poor housing conditions, casualisation of labour, violations of employment regulations and low wages.
Unilever denies the allegations however, saying it is not aware of any current problems relating to sexual harassment at its Kericho plantation, and stating that it will act on any case where there is evidence of such behaviour taking place.
The company says working and living conditions at the estate are good and points towards its provision of schools, a hospital and four health centres for workers and their families. It also highlights that in order to retain its Rainforest Alliance certification the plantation has to successfully meet nearly 100 social, environmental and economic criteria.
The certification body itself says that that it carried out a regular audit of the Kericho estate in July 2010 – and another, unannounced, audit in November the same year– and found no evidence of problems.
But in a visit to the Kericho plantation in March 2011, the Ecologist heard further allegations of sexual harassment, with some women at the estate claiming they have no choice but to have sex with male supervisors in order to survive.
Sex is reportedly demanded by supervisors in return for allocating lighter duties, for help with securing better housing, organising repairs to property or – in some cases – for extra money for women desperate to supplement their wages.
Some women have claimed that they feel coerced into having intercourse in order to avoid being targeted by supervisors.
The Ecologist also found some accommodation to be in a state of disrepair, with some houses dirty, overcrowded and poorly ventilated, some having no electricity, with workers being forced to share communal toilets and bathrooms.
Workers also allege that some employees at the plantation are kept on a temporary basis for months – or even years – at a time, rather than be provided with contracts or benefits promised to permanent workers. This leads, it is claimed, to job insecurity and the threat of eviction if work is not forthcoming.
This is not the first time that the tea sector in Kenya – which involves companies apart from Unilever – has been criticised over its practices and conditions. British charity War On Want claims that Kenya's tea industry as a whole is riddled with exploitation, and says that it has collected separate evidence of poor working and living conditions endured by tea workers supplying British supermarkets.
Valerie stares at her hands as she talks, cut and gnarled from seventeen years of plucking tea by hand. She’s put on make up and foundation especially for the Ecologist’s visit. Still she looks haggard, way too thin for her 45 years: like she’s suffering from HIV.
‘My hair falls out, I cry a lot at stupid things, I can’t sleep properly and I get headaches and lose my appetite,’ the tea plucker at Unilever’s Kericho plantation says, stooped over in her neighbour’s ten foot by ten foot house. ‘It’s a miracle you’ve come. We’ve waited so long for someone from the outside: whenever management arranges visits we’re too frightened to talk about what’s going on.’
Raphael and Rachel, also tea pickers, are the neighbours. Both in their late forties, they have seven children to look after – they inherited three nieces and nephews when the parents died of HIV – all crammed into this space. The children sleep on a mat in one room, the parents on a single bed, nestled amongst heaps of dirty clothes, tea picking baskets, firewood and a lone cat, oblivious to all of this.
There’s no electric light in here, in fact no electricity at all; the only furniture is three hand made wooden chairs and a small coffee table. The concrete floor is pitted and the walls bare and unpainted with cracks. The house’s water is one cold tap on the wall. Cooking is done on a hearth on the floor and a metal pot: the ventilation is bad. The communal drop toilet for these houses is simply a small corrugated iron shed; the washing facilities are a concrete block, also communal.
More than 12,500 households are maintained by the Kericho tea estate. According to SOMO, housing conditions for employees at the estate are deplorable. ‘The complaints include leaky roofs, cement floors with cracks and broken window panes that compelled workers to use cardboard boxes to cover the gaping holes to mitigate the cold evenings,’ the report says. ‘Other complaints received were that houses were only painted on the exterior, while inside walls were never painted.’
One worker told SOMO that in the village estate that she lives on ‘there was no clean water and there were no sanitary facilities forcing workers to use facilities from neighbouring villages.’ A previous SOMO report in 2009 made similar claims, alleging common cases of overcrowding – especially in the peak tea picking season – and repairs allegedly taking a 'very long time' to be completed.
In a 2008 report published by the KHRC a researcher reported: 'X lives in a round hut-like house with an iron roof and painted white on the outside. From the outside one would be deceived to think that the neatly painted white exterior also applies to the interior. The house is unusually dark; the walls could have once in the past been white... the house is basically one roomed and X has separated the “kitchen” area and the “bedroom” area with a wade of old bed sheets. X has very little furniture... besides 3 old wooden chairs and a stool.' The report also cited complaints of repairs not being completed within an adequate timeframe and of houses being left unpainted for a number of years.
‘Sex to survive’
‘I can’t show you my house,' Esther tells the Ecologist. 'I’m just too embarrassed. I tried to get a transfer, but my options are a bribe of about 500 Kenya Shillings [approximately three pounds fifty] or to sleep with the supervisor. But he won’t sleep with me. At 48 he thinks I am too old'. Similar claims of village elders expecting sex in return for allocating accommodation at the Kericho plantation have been reported by both SOMO and KHRC.
SOMO stated in a report in 2008 that the allocation of houses is 'riddled with allegations of corruption, tribalism and sexual harassment'. KHRC quoted a Unilever worker who alleged that village elders abused their power by asking single women for sex in exchange for housing: 'All the village elders are men and so for a woman you have to face the reality if you want accommodation then you have to talk with them nicely and this would even mean going out – having sex – with them.'
Similar allegations are made in relation to women attempting to get lighter work or easier shifts at the Kericho plantation; tea plucking is considered one of the easier jobs, as is weeding or clearing; better shifts are seen as those that make it possible for women to work round children’s school days, and to run the house because as well as working 8 to 12 hour days the women have to clean and cook, and look after their children.
'It’s completely normal here,' says Valerie. 'I’d say all of us, all the time, sleep with the supervisor, or agree to have regular sex, in order to get a lighter shift.' According to SOMO's 2008 report, 'Women pluckers who refuse the sexual advances of their, always male, supervisors are sometimes given too much work or allocated lonely or dangerous plucking zones'.
The Ecologist asked women it interviewed whether the situation could be perceived as amounting to prostitution: 'No, this isn’t prostitution” says Valerie. 'I didn’t choose this. I have sex with supervisors to survive, to pay school fees, to keep my house or to get a repair done. I think of the money when I have sex, or what I am getting. Nothing else. There’s no pleasure, or choice.'
SOMO’s forthcoming report features the testimony of worker Chanya, 26, who started work with Unilever in the summer of 2007. The single mother of two claims that following an interview for a job at the Kericho plantation a supervisor asked her for a bribe to secure employment. According to SOMO she informed the supervisor that she did not have the money. The supervisor then reportedly told her that to ‘make her life easier’ she should go to a house in the village to discuss the issue of her employment further.
The report states: ‘In the house the supervisor told her that she should have sex so that she can get the job and he would ensure that she would continue to work. When she refused the advances of the supervisor, he returned her documents and told her to look for employment somewhere else. Chanya left the house and went back to her home. The next day however Chanya returned to the tea estate and gave the supervisor [the requested money] but he refused to take the money and told her that they should go back to the house.’
The report continues: ‘When they were in the house, the supervisor told her that if she had sex with him he would guarantee that she got a job as a general worker which was less strenuous than a tea picker. She agreed to have sex with him. Chanya said she had no choice but to agree to the supervisors advances because she had a child and dependents.’
‘When she started working, the supervisor would always find fault with her work, he would tell her that unless he had sex with her, he would deduct her wages. The supervisor would always find a reason to have sex with Chanya, if it rained and they were unable to work, he would approach her and tell her to go back to his friend’s house. To retain her job at Unilever, Chanya had to have sex with her supervisor,’ the report claims.
Too afraid to go public
‘I grew up on that Unilever estate,’ says Lavinia, 28. She lasted six months before she quit working at tea estates. She now has a different job. ‘It is as bad as you see… sexual harassment and coercive sex [are] absolutely standard for all women under forty. You don’t go to the toilet at night...’
Lavinia claims she watched both her sisters contract HIV. Both had been pressured into sex with tea supervisors, she claims. ‘I suppose the experience of watching my sister die in hospital (this was reportedly before anti-retrovirals were available) was just so deep,’ she says. ‘Then I found out my mum, who’s also a tea picker at Unilever, is positive. She’s an old lady for god’s sake. I just couldn’t stay as a tea picker. I couldn’t risk having unprotected sex just to keep my job.'
The Ecologist asked the women it interviewed why the alleged sexual harassment doesn’t appear to be reported. They replied almost universally that they were fearful of losing their jobs, that the management couldn't be trusted to investigate properly and that the police were unlikely to take such claims seriously and would only take action in return for a bribe – which the women simply couldn't afford.
'I left. I complained, I went public, but no, I didn’t report it. What would be the point? I’d have to pay the police to get my case heard, women are too afraid of management, of losing this job, however bad it is. It’s all they’ve got,’ says Lavinia.
Arthur, a peer educator with Unilever's HIV programme supports this view: 'I think the issue if one of shame, the women are encouraged to bear the shame and stigma... they find it almost impossible to insist on condoms. And they don’t report it because what would be the point?'
What about the unions? Joshua Maywen, branch secretary of the Kenyan Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union, acknowledged to the Ecologist that there is a problem at the tea estates.
KHRC says the union is too pre-occupied with other matters to effectively deal with the issue of sexual harassment however: 'The situation on the tea estates for women is very bad, similar to the flower farms, the Union isn’t doing enough to either monitor it or research it, or change it… they’re caught up in the mechanisation issues. Whether hand pickers will lose their jobs to machines. We’re a bit behind when it comes to main-streaming gender issues,' a spokeswomen says.
SOMO’s forthcoming report claims that Kericho workers who are members of the union report facing harassment – including accusations of impropriety and moving workers to heavier tea picking duties – or even dismissal if they raise difficult issues with the management.
Valerie, Esther and Rachel – and other workers the Ecologist interviewed – claim that they are among the luckier employees on the tea estates because they are on permanent contracts. This means their houses are permanent and their jobs are secure. And despite the broken windows, the chipped floors and the lack of ventilation, they do not face the threat of eviction if work is not forthcoming.
In contrast, Evelyn, Rosalie, Oberon and Jospehat are casual workers for Unilever: all in their late twenties and thirties. They claim that they have been held in temporary employment because the tea plantation exploits a loophole in legislation that enables them to keep workers on a temporary basis for long periods of time; months or even years.
They claim they are supposed to be made permanent after three months, and get some associated benefits including better housing and health care. But the procedure, according to the casual workers, is that they are told three days before pay day at the end of the month that there’s no more work. They then have three days to pack up, get a new place, and leave.
Commonly however, they are re-employed, it is claimed, again on a temporary basis. Although both casual and permanent workers are entitled to housing and health care at the Kericho plantation, according to SOMO, casual workers are not entitled to pensions or free health care for their children.
Some casual workers live off-site. Evelyn is currently living in a shop front in town. 'It’s cheap, that’s all. I got evicted when they laid off us casuals in November. I am desperate for the rains… then there’s work.' Her colleagues nod, they claim they have all been evicted too: 'There’s so much uncertainty in this life, you focus on the essentials, school fees for the kids, and food…all the rest is irrelevant really.'
Tea plucking is difficult and sometimes hazardous work, and workers can be on their feet for hours, carrying tea-collecting baskets on their backs, with back problems common, according to campaigners. Additionally, outside for most of the day – shifts can be as long as 11 hours – workers can be exposed to harsh weather conditions, it is claimed.
'They give us one meal a day of uji (maize porridge) with salt. No sugar,' says Oberon. 'We’ve got twenty minutes to wolf it down. No other breaks. No tea, no water. Imagine... I work on the tea estate, I never drink tea, that’s for you rich wazungu (white people)... I can’t afford it.'
The Ecologist was unable to access the medical facilities at Unilever's Kericho estate to verify medical care arrangements, but both SOMO and the KHRC acknowledge that the company provides adequate facilities: Unilever operates a fully equipped hospital with a theatre for surgical procedures, maternity care facilities and a laboratory. The company also runs 4 health centres, more than 20 dispensaries, and has put in place a comprehensive HIV / AIDS programme for workers and their families.
The prevalence of HIV at the estate is unclear; one reason being that women in particular are reluctant to come forward because of the stigma attached to admitting that they might be HIV positive, or because they have been abused or used sex to survive, according to Arthur, the HIV peer worker.
No 'substantive evidence'
Unilever maintains that conditions at its Kericho plantation are good. In a statement the company said: 'Unilever is not aware of any current problems of this sort [relating to sexual harassment] at Kericho, and takes any allegation of sexual harassment at our tea plantation in Kericho very seriously. We will act upon any case where there is evidence to prove that such behaviour has taken place.'
The company said it had only dealt with one instance of such problems in almost a decade: 'To put that in context, there has been only one report in the last nine years which was fully investigated and appropriate action taken.'
Unilever also said that it had put in place several measures to ensure that allegations of inappropriate behaviour can be reported by workers: 'These include regular rotations of our plantation unit leaders, a free telephone hotline for workers to register complaints anonymously, and a welfare committee with female representation to improve liaison between our workers and management on welfare issues.'
In relation to the living conditions reported by SOMO and KHRC – and observed by the Ecologist – the company said: 'The housing estates at Kericho are among the best you will find anywhere in the East African tea industry. While Western observers might think the facilities look basic, relative comparisons should be made to local conditions in Kenya where many rural based workers do not have the same access to houses which are linked to clean water. Our plantation workers are also provided with schools, a hospital and four health centres for them and their families.
Unilever acknowledged it makes use of casual labour but denied any wrongdoing: 'Tea picking is an inherently seasonal business, and like many other agricultural organisations we rely on seasonal workers as part of our labour force. We fully adhere to Kenya's labour law that governs the employment of temporary workers.'
Following the publication of the earlier SOMO and KHRC reports, Unilever says it investigated all the claims made in relation to sexual harassment, working and living conditions at the Kericho plantation, and found nothing of concern.
The company accuses KHRC of failing to provide sufficient detail in relation to allegations of sexual harassment: 'No substantive evidence of sexual harassment has ever been tabled to us. During our meetings with KHRC, they did not give us any concrete examples of their findings, only references to one or two estates,' Unilever's response to KHRC findings, published in 2009, stated. 'These estates were fully investigated by our General Management and nothing untoward was discovered.'
KHRC had reported in 2008 that the management at Unilever's Kericho plantation told their researchers they 'receive many allegations of sexual harassment... however after careful investigation it is determined that most allegations are ''spurious malice.''' The management also reported, KHRC claim, receiving anonymous complaints but that they were unable to act on them because there was no complainant.
Unilever also said that it has asked SOMO for details of the allegations made in the organisations’ reports, but that it too had not been willing to share information. The company said that it supported the right of its workers to join trade unions and that no problems relating to harassment of union members had been brought to its attention.
The Rainforest Alliance, which first certified Unilever's Kericho tea plantation in 2007, told the Ecologist that following receipt of a SOMO report, a two-day unannounced audit took place in November 2010 to investigate allegations made. The certification body says that despite extensive interviews with both permanent and seasonal workers – which took place in a free environment with no estate management present – no evidence of breaches of its certification requirements were found.
Under Rainforest Alliance rules the Unilever plantation has to meet almost 100 environmental, social and economic criteria, including fair treatment and good working and living conditions for workers, and occupational health & safety. The last scheduled audit of the plantation took place in July 2010.
In a statement to the Ecologist regarding the outfits' November audit, Ria Stout, managing director of the Rainforest Alliance's Sustainable Agriculture Division, said: 'With regards to the allegation of sexual harassment, we found that the estate has a clear policy on sexual harassment. It was clear that the company has put in place positive measures to create both awareness and the empowerment of women – who are the victims mentioned in the SOMO report – but also that these measures are aimed at being able to identify the problem early enough if it occurs.'
Responding to allegations over the condition of housing, Stout said that: 'The estate maintains over 12,500 houses on the estate. All permanent workers are provided with housing and seasonal workers on a first come, first served basis. Houses have water and sanitary facilities commensurate with the number of people per village.'
Stout confirmed that the estate makes use of temporary workers, but said that certification required that these workers have the same access to health and education as permanent workers and that the estate is required to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the law: 'The audit in November 2010 found no systematic abuse of this standard.'
Tea sector: a vital source of employment
The Kericho plantation – and Kenya's tea sector as a whole – is a vital source of employment and income for the country. In 2006 more than 300,000 tonnes of tea was produced in the country, creating an estimated – both directly and indirectly – 3 million jobs. According to the Kenyan Tea Board the country has, in recent years, been responsible for some 20 per cent of all the tea exported in the world, making it the second biggest exporter globally. Pakistan, Egypt and the UK are among the biggest importers of Kenyan tea.
Much of the country's tea, after picking, is put through a fermentation process, then dried, graded and processed. It then it goes by road to the large auctions in Mombassa. Typically it is graded again, then blended, where tea from both large multinationals and small independent Kenya Farmers can be mixed together. Many of the large tea companies operate a system of vertical integration however, controlling each and every stage of the production process.
Unilever's Kericho estate supplies its PG Tips and Lipton brands, according to the Rainforest Alliance. The brands are two of the most well known tea names in the UK and beyond. In 2007 Unilever committed to sourcing all of its Lipton and PG Tips tea bags from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms by 2015. According to the company PG Tips tea is now fully certified.
It is not only Unilever that has found itself at the centre of controversy over its Kenyan tea operations. British charity War On Want claims that problems within the Kenyan tea industry as a whole are endemic, including in the small-scale tea picking sector. The group says that it found evidence, published in 2010, of poor working conditions and low wages being suffered by tea workers ultimately found to be supplying UK supermarkets.
'We found huge exploitation and appalling wages,' Simon McRae, senior campaigner, says. 'The casualisation of labour is part of a worrying trend of workers rights being eroded.' The group says that its research calculates that for each box of tea sold in the UK for £1.60, a tea picker – whether in Kenya or other tea cultivating countries such as India – could expect to receive as little as 1p.
Back at the plantation, the Ecologist drives past rows of neat, painted houses and hedges of tea, all the same length, growing thickly. We wonder how the tea pickers can actually access the bushes as there’s no paths. The signs are pristine, with woodland owned by the tea estates clumped in the fields. From the outside it looks good.
The names of workers have been changed to protect their identity
Verity Largo is a pseudonym for a correspondent based in Africa
This article was updated on April 15th to clarify the Rainforest Alliance's position in relation to this story. In our opening standfirst we had originally implied that the RA had denied the allegations of sexual harassment at the Kericho plantation. The certification body has now pointed out that they have not denied these allegations and stated that they take them seriously: 'In the November 2010 audit no evidence was found to support them. What we have said is that we need evidence and specifics so that independent auditors can follow up the allegations. Without these it would be difficult to do more than the thorough research audit conducted in November 2010'.
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