In London and across the UK, the revelations that emerged from a journalistic undercover investigation carried out by the BBC caused quite a stir. In Kenya, at least 70 female workers on large farms owned by two giants - Unilever, which produces the tea marketed in the UK and around the world under the Lipton brand, and James Finlay & Co, which supplies the supermarkets of leading retail chains - were subjected to violence, blackmail and sexual abuse by 'supervisors' to whom they had to give in if they wanted to keep their jobs.
"It's simply torture. He wants to sleep with you, then you get the job.” Speaking is a woman working on a tea plantation in Kenya. She is referring to her supervisor who left her at home without pay until she gave in to blackmail. It was a BBC investigation, published on 20th of last February, that uncovered rape, abuse and sexual violence committed by local managers and supervisors on more than 70 women. The tea plantations under investigation are owned by two famous UK brands: Unilever and James Finaly & Co. The former produced Lipton and PGtips branded products until recently, while the latter supplies the supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsbury's as well as Starbucks UK.
The investigation into tea plantations in Kenya
BBC journalist Tom Odula spoke to many women working on the plantations of the two companies. Most stated that they had been subjected to sexual pressure and had to give in, given to the work shortage. In order to obtain more evidence, the BBC sent an undercover journalist to the plantations. The first interview took place in a hotel room. Here, after pushing her against a window, the recruiter asked her to undress: “We lie down, finish and go. Then you come to work.”
A similar situation also occurred at the Unilever plantation. The journalist was invited to an orientation day. Here the divisional manager gave a speech to the newcomers about Unilever's zero-tolerance policy towards sexual abuse, only to invite the reporter to the bar and offer her sexual intercourse. Later, once assigned to the weeding team, a gruelling job from which many women ask to be transferred, the reporter applied for a transfer. This time, too, she was allegedly blackmailed into lighter duties in return.
The reactions of the Kenyan government and the multinationals involved
The BBC scoop caused shock and indignation, and also shook the Kenyan parliament. The Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Gladys Shollei, ordered an investigation by a parliamentary committee to be completed within weeks.
James Finaly & Co said it had suspended the manager and reported him to the police, as well as launching an investigation into whether its operations in Kenya had “an endemic problem with sexual violence.”
Unilever, likewise, declared itself “shocked and saddened”. Already in 2011, sexual violence perpetrated against female workers on its tea plantations in Kenya had been reported. In the wake of the scandal, the multinational company had adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual violence and harassment and implemented reporting systems and other anti-abuse measures. However, the recent BBC investigation revealed that the allegations were not being taken into account.
During the investigation, Unilever sold its Kenyan business to the CVC Capital Partners fund in 2021. Following the allegations that emerged, the new owner stated that it had suspended the two managers and ordered an independent investigation. Despite the sale, it is safe to assume that Unilever’s reputation will suffer in the consumers’ consideration. The new generations are sensitive to the big issues of our time, including the protection of workers. They demand that brands espouse values and are not prepared to give discounts: declarations of intent must be followed by deeds.
A different model: fair trade
The investigation has uncovered a practice of violence against women that affects not only tea plantations, but the entire agricultural system. Every day millions of female workers are at risk of harassment and abuse. In the countries of the Global South, however, there is also another way of doing agriculture: the many fair-trade stories show this.
One is that of Meru Herbs, an organisation - for years close to Italian Altromercato - that was founded in 1991 at the foot of Mount Kenya with the intention of alleviating the financial constraints imposed on local farmers and contributing to the creation and maintenance of an efficient water project. The objectives of the business also include ensuring decent wages for employees and farmers and promoting women's empowerment. "The structure of Meru Herbs farms is different," says manager Sally Sawaya. "Most of the workers are women who not only run the factories but also the quality control units, the drying and storage facilities and the entire logistics process."
The promotion of women to leadership and management roles, in order to make them less vulnerable, is also a goal of Fairtrade, another fair-trade organisation. Among the proposed solutions is to involve women workers in decision-making bodies to understand, together with them, what are the most effective ways to deal with gender-based violence.
Fairtrade, in condemning what happened in Kenya, expressed the need for all governments to sign the Violence and Harassment Convention 190, aimed at eliminating violence and abuse in the world of work. Companies alone cannot stop gender-based violence, a collective effort is needed.