James Finlay in the eye of the storm

James Finlay

Workers pick tea in a section of Finlay Kenya’s tea farm in Kericho County in 2019.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

James Finlay tea company is in the eye of a storm over alleged threats to its current and former staff who have sued the multinational over work-related injuries.

In a case filed in Scotland, the litigants are accusing the company of forcing them to work for 12 hours in its tea estates spread across Kericho and Bomet counties, leading to health complications.

It is also claimed that they were forced to carry green tea leaves weighing over 30 kilograms on their backs to collection points in the farms where they provided labour six days in a week.

The company which has lately been in the news following a spat with local leaders and residents over the deployment of tea-plucking machines in their estates also faces accusations of using the local police to intimidate and assault the litigants.

The latest in a torrent of accusations is an alleged attempt by a driver at the firm to run over a colleague who is among those involved in a class action lawsuit against James Finlay Kenya Ltd (JFKL) in a court in Scotland.

To save his life, the targeted employee jumped into bushes in a remote road to avoid being run over by the truck driver who was after him.

Interestingly, the driver of the truck revealed to his fellow employee that he was a target along with the more than 2,000 current and former workers who have sued the company after they allegedly suffered musculoskeletal injuries while working in the company’s vast tea estates spread across Bomet and Kericho counties in the South Rift region.

Andrew Smith KC, told a Court of Session in Edinburg that the multinational which is a registered company in Aberdeen had breached an undertaking it made to Scotland’s’ Supreme Civil court not to intimidate any of the litigants.

Mr Smith told the court that a confidential legal file was stolen by an employee of the company during a meeting between the litigants and their lawyers in Kericho and that photographs of the workers involved were taken by the company’s security officers.

He said one of the workers was later assaulted by the local security officers with the feeling on the ground that the police were working for James Finlay and that there was a need to bring that kind of assault to an end.

“There’s the most gross intimidation taking place of those who are suing JFKL and they are being targeted because they are suing JFKL,” Mr Smith told the court, according to an article filed by the BBC on Friday.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova KC who is representing the multination said the court had heard allegations amounting to “attempted murder and police corruption”

“These are highly-complicated matters which bear investigations…I have seen pictures of rather frightened-looking men signing confessions which bear investigations as well” Davidson told the court in the latest hearing.

The company had made an undertaking not to reach out to the litigants, intimidate them or seek to dissuade them in any way from pressing on with the charges.

There has been an avalanche of cases against the multinational in Kenya and Scotland with the latest being attempts to establish jurisdiction of the courts to preside over the matters.

A team of experts had been allowed by a court in Scotland in 2018, to tour the tea estate to gather evidence for use in the case that has been filed (in Scotland), but the company lodged a successful objection to it in Kenya's judicial system on grounds of jurisdiction on the matter.

In the team of experts were Alan J. Silman, a professor of musculoskeletal health, Richard Graveling, an ergonomist, Margaret McQueen, an orthopeadic surgeon, Nigle Melican, a tea production technology expert and David Maina who is listed as a tea industry economics expert. A legal team and a translator were also included.

Justice Stephen Radido of the Employment and Labour Relations court blocked the inspection following an appeal by the company, in what was later upheld by the Court of Appeal Judges -  Roselyne Nambuye (retired), Sankale Ole Kantai and Wanjiru Karanja.

The company has filed another case seeking to permanently bar the Scottish Court of Session from hearing the case and that the same be handled in Kenya by the Director of Occupational Health and Safety Services.

Bu the affected litigants have fired back saying it was part of a wider scheme by the multinational to frustrate their efforts to seek justice in Scotland where the firm is based and has global business footprints.

James Finlay has been accused by Kericho Governor Erick Mutai of deploying mechanisation on its farms at the expense of manual labour in what has led to mass sacking of workers who served both on casual and permanent basis.

The company has fought back saying mechanization was effective and a global business phenomenon that can not be reversed.

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions has said more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs had been lost as a result of mechanisation in the tea estates in Kenya.