The real price of a cup of tea

 

Much of the Lyons tea drunk in Ireland is grown in a Kenyan plantation where workers say they’ve suffered sexual harassment and exploitation. Parent company Unilever says the claims are untrue. So is it a scandal, or a storm in a teacup? JODY CLARKEreports from Kericho

REBECCA ONGERI*, pulls one grain sack, then another, away from a crack in her bedroom window. She shudders against the quick mountain air, which blows in and across her 60-year-old frame and down on to her two grandchildren, who are cuddling for warmth on the bare floor of her two-roomed shack.

“I’ve had broken windows for three years,” she says. “But the company has never fixed them, and I don’t have the money to do so.”

A tea plucker, Ongeri is one of several people interviewed for this article who were frightened to give their real names and felt they must protect their identities. They wanted their stories to be known, however, following allegations in a disturbing report, soon to be published by a Dutch organisation, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo), into conditions at the Unilever tea plantation at Kericho in western Kenya.

Ongeri is paid 9.28 Kenyan shillings (7 cent) for every kilogram of leaves she gathers in a day. It amounts to less than 400 shillings (€3.10) per day, but a quarter of that regularly goes to supervisors, who demand bribes to leave her and the other women alone.

“When I was younger, they asked me for sex,” Ongeri says. “Now they just harass the older women, tell us that the tea we plucked is substandard or put us in charge of an area with no leaves, which means we don’t get anything.”

Ongeri is one of about 16,000 people who work on Unilever’s 8,400-hectare tea estate in Kericho, the centre of Kenya’s €82-million tea industry and the source of much of Unilever’s Lyons tea, one of Ireland’s best-selling brands. In the rolling green hills of the western highlands, an even mix of sun and rain makes Kericho an ideal location for growing Camellia sinensis, the plant from which all tea comes.

But, according to many of Unilever’s employees, the same does not go for working there. Women face constant sexual harassment, wages are poor, promotion is based on what tribe employees belong to, and workers’ accommodation is inadequate. Employees claim that the company has provided them with no means of addressing their problems, but Unilever says this is unfair.

“We pay 2.5 times more than the average minimum wage set down by the government,” says Eric de Foresta, managing director of Unilever Tea Kenya. From an office built by former British army officers who came here after the first World War, he looks out on tea bushes dating back to the estate’s beginnings in the 1920s. On the wall is a photograph of the 11 (white) directors of the board of Brooke Bond, the company that founded the estate, dated July 1966. Things have changed since then, including conditions for the workers who live on the estate, according to de Foresta.

“If you make the comparison with Europe, of course the houses are below standard,” he says. “But compared to Kenya, the standard is very high. One report said that there is only one cold tap in each house. But that should be seen as a good thing. Very few houses in Kenya have clean water pumped into them.”

Either way, at the current rate of 2,500 houses a year, the company is expected to finish upgrading dwellings in 2012, according to de Foresta. “We are trying to improve houses by repainting and repairing floors. That can’t be done in a year,” he says.

Those at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) who compiled the 2008 report, A Comparative Study of the Tea Sector in Kenya: a Case Study of Large-Scale Tea Estates, say conditions have improved, but not enough.

“Things have changed for the better, but sexual harassment is still a problem,” says Louiza Kabiru of the KHRC. “The formation of committees is one step forward, but women on the ground need to be told how they can get their problems addressed.”

Sexual harassment is a problem not just at Unilever, she adds, but across Kenyan society. “I’ve reported a case of sexual harassment to the police, and nothing happened. So if a person who is supposed to be educated and empowered can’t bring a successful action, what chance has a lady who is poorly educated?”

Ongeri and other female employees of Unilever say that harassment persists. “An employee can’t ask to go home for three days on casual leave unless you oblige to their demands,” says one woman, who says she escaped harsher duties eight years ago by sleeping with a supervisor. “The supervisor is the first person you go to looking for permission, so they can often demand whatever they want.”

Unilever sought to aid the reporting of sexual harassment on the estate by offering a support phone number and suggestion boxes as a means for women to make anonymous complaints. However, of five women I interviewed from different parts of the estate, none had heard of the support phone number. As for the supposedly anonymous suggestion boxes, employees have been told to avoid them, says Paul Mungai*, a workers’ representative on the estate. “The manager told us to put our cheque roll number and name on anything we put in. Then he told us to sign it. He said if you have a problem, come and talk to me. If you put a letter inside, he said, you will be called to explain.”

Workers also claim that the company is failing to fulfil its side of an agreement that all employees should be fitted with protective clothing, including hard shoes for pluckers. “There are visitors coming next week,” says one man, “so they’ve given out shoes to 100 of the workers. But that’s all.”

Those without protective clothing are told to hide in the bushes when visitors are passing, he claims.

Of equal concern to employees is the manner in which duties are allocated. Mungai says that he asks constantly for people who are old, and who have worked in the company for a long time, to be transferred from plucking to weeding, which is regarded as less strenuous work. “The management said if someone is not able to pluck, they must resign . . . But it seems that if you are a relative of a manager, you’ll get softer work.”

Separating genuine grievances from the usual gripes shared by workers the world over is not easy, but issues to do with hiring and the allocation of jobs seem to be at the heart of the estate’s problems. Most of its managers and supervisors come from Kericho, which is home to the Kalenjin tribe, Kenya’s second largest. However, many of the workers are Kisii. These workers claim that the majority of clerks, the people who weigh the tea but don’t have to pluck it, are Kalenjin.

“It’s tribalism,” says one woman, a member of the Luo tribe from the shores of Lake Victoria. “The management and supervisors speak a different language from us, which makes it harder for us to get our problems heard.”

Unilever has tried to combat this problem by taking the hiring of new workers out of the hands of supervisors, who each oversee the work of 100 pluckers, and putting it into the hands of management instead. Also, starting recently, new workers are selected by ballot, whereby names are put into a box and picked out at random.

Whether this will reduce conflict and harassment, only time will tell.

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees

'What auditors see at the estate is theatre, it's not the real situation'

The disparity between accounts of what is going on at Kericho may point to weaknesses in the certification methods of some ethical schemes, writes SUZANNE CAMPBELL

LYONS TEA, which claims to be “one of Ireland’s biggest and best-known brands”, also makes claims about the ethical credentials of its product. But a Dutch organisation, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo), which has been examining the welfare of workers at the Lyons Kericho plantation since 2006, says that female employees there allege sexual harassment, “rampant” discrimination, poor housing conditions, casualisation of labour, violations of employment regulations, and low wages.

Unilever, which owns the Lyons brand, says it is unaware of any current problems at Kericho, where most Lyons tea comes from. The Kericho estate has almost 16,000 workers and is a flagship plantation for Unilever, whose PG Tips and Lipton teas are also picked there. The estate is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an ethical and sustainable agriculture auditing organisation.

Somo, whose mission is to monitor multinational companies operating in developing countries, alleges in its upcoming report that some female workers on the estate, mainly tea pickers, suffer sexual harassment at the hands of company supervisors and are forced to have sex in order to secure lighter work duties or better housing.

Somo also alleges that the living conditions on the plantation are deplorable, that there is harassment of workers belonging to trade unions, and that workers remain vulnerable by being kept on short-term casual contracts.

Unilever responds that it can find no evidence of these problems at Kericho and claims that conditions for workers on the estate are good. Paul Matthews, media relations manager at Unilever, insists that health facilities and housing conditions there are “the best provided in that region”.

Unilever also says that the plantation has to comply with around 100 different criteria on working conditions, employee welfare and environmental sustainability in order to keep up its certification from the Rainforest Alliance.

In response to the sexual-harassment allegations, Unilever sent an auditing team to the plantation to investigate, and “found no evidence of problems”. The company claims it “would act quickly on any case where there is evidence of such behaviour taking place”. It also says it has put in place improved reporting mechanisms for women suffering sexual harassment.

The Rainforest Alliance has also denied the allegations in the Somo report. After receiving details from Somo in September last year regarding alleged sexual harassment on the estate, the organisation instigated a research audit but did not find violations of its certification requirements. The alliance says that a regular audit of the Lyons Tea Kericho estate in July 2010, and another, unannounced, audit in November of the same year, found no evidence of problems.

So which story is the consumer to believe? Lyons Tea claims that its work with the Rainforest Alliance ensures “that every cup of our tea is a step towards a better life for tea farmers, their families and the environment”, something that does not seem to be borne out by the experiences of some women who pick the tea.

The disparity between the Somo and Unilever accounts of conditions on the plantation may point out weaknesses in the credentials of some ethical schemes themselves. The UK charity War on Want says that the tea industry in east Africa is riddled with exploitation, and ethical farming schemes may not be watertight in terms of preventing human-rights abuses or environmental breaches.

Sanne van der Wal, a senior researcher at Somo, is not surprised by the results of Unilever’s auditing of employee welfare on the plantation. He claims that when auditors visit the estate, “what they see is like a theatre; it is not the real situation,” he says. “This is really common, not just in tea production but also in the textile and garment industry.”

Unilever denies that its audits, or those carried out by Rainforest Alliance, are in any way compromised. “Accusations that these audits are stage-managed is simply not true,” says Paul Matthews. “Independent auditors at Kericho or any of our plantations can visit any area of the tea estate they want to, without supervision and management present.”

The Rainforest Alliance, whose affiliate group, the Sustainable Agriculture Network, carried out the audit of last November at Kericho, says that the alliance’s standards were upheld at the estate and that there was no evidence of the sexual harassment alleged by Somo.

For Somo, the poor conditions alleged by workers at Kericho are mirrored at other sites making products for western ethical-food appetites. “We’re not suggesting that if you change to any other brand of tea the situation would be any better. This problem is part of the industry,” says van der Wal. For him, the kernel of the problem lies in the claims made by certain food manufacturers over others. “If companies claim that they are different, that they have great ethical policies, and you see these claims on the packs but the reality is totally different, then the customer should know this.”