The sexual exploitation of female workers on farms owned by two multinational tea companies operating in Kericho and Bomet counties has taken a new twist after 50 victims gave notices to sue for compensation.
Through Gilbert Kemboi of Kemboi Chambers Advocates, the victims, whose numbers are expected to rise, have issued demand notices to Finlays and Ekaterra to admit liability for violation of their rights.
It comes against the backdrop of a BBC exposé which depicted contractors, managers and supervisors preying on female workers so they could keep their jobs or be assigned light duties in the tea estates.
Interestingly, none of the victims came forward to record statements with the police, nor did they meet the parliamentary committee on Labour in their tour of the South Rift last weekend.
International supermarkets chains Tesco and Sainsbury’s have condemned the incidents while Starbucks said it had immediately suspended purchasing from Finlays until the matter is resolved.
“Finlays Kenya Ltd and Ekaterra Plc have violated several provisions of the constitution of Kenya 2010, Employment Act, 2007, Sexual Offences Act, 2006, Occupational Safety and Health Act 2007. The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1981 and the International Labour Organisation Convention No.111 and 115,” Mr Kemboi stated.
He stated that the law firm has on behalf of the victims written to the two companies “to admit liability within 48 hours in order for us to calculate the quantum of damages payable to the victims and their families,”
The victims say they will move to court if the firms will not take responsibility of the matter that has attracted local and international attention.
“We call upon all the stakeholders both locally and internationally keen on human rights protection to join hands as we prosecute the matter to the tail end” Mr Kemboi said.
In the demand notices, Finlays and Ekaterra are accused of subjecting the affected workers to emotional trauma and health complications as a result of sexual exploitation on their farms.
“Those who are forced by harsh conditions of poverty and general hard life to yield to their demands are forced to have unprotected sex and intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases that have threatened their right to life guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution,” Mr Kemboi stated.
The women, he stated, had been subjected to rampant, repetitive non-consensual sex that resulted in a high rate of HIV infection and that their families have been broken as a result.
“The companies have violated the fundamental rights to life of these employees to life, freedom from torture and cruelty ,inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, equality and treatment from discrimination…highest attainable standard of health, and reproductive rights occasioning irreparable loss, untold pain and suffering, “ Mr Kemboi said.
James Finlay and Ekaterra (formerly Unilever) have since stated they are working with the authorities in investigations into the cases.
The perpetrators have also been suspended from duty and barred from accessing the companies’ premises until the investigations are concluded.
The National Assembly Departmental Committee on Labour chaired by Runjenjes Member of Parliament Erick Muchangi at the weekend toured the two companies operating on a fact finding mission.
The committee members including - MPs - Muli Kyule, Richard Chonga, Barasa Simyu and Ms Lilian Siyoi and both Kericho Woman Rep Ms Beatrice Kemei and nominated Senator Gloria Orwoba sitting in as friends of the committee, held meetings with workers, trade unionists and managers of the two companies in the two day tour.
“It is unfortunate that there are cases of sexual molestation with victims not willing to speak on the issues for fear of harassment and sacking by the management of the companies that have been accused of abetting the crime,” Mr Muchangi said.
At James Finlay, the committee said there was a skewed ratio on management appointments that favoured men against women with none in supervisory roles in the vast tea estates.
The matter, they said, needs to be addressed immediately by the company to curb cases of sexual molestation which is rampant in the estates.
“In Ekaterra, there is a lot of disconnect on what the middle level managers know on the vice and what the Managing Director has been told. Middle level managers are accused by workers and shop stewards of sexual harassment (which is concealed from the MD) and the matter needs to be investigated by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations,” Mr Muchangi said.
Ms Slyvia Ten Den, the Ekaterra Plc Managing Director in charge of Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania told the MPs that the company was not aware of cases of sexual abuses prior to the expose published by the BBC.
“We have no cases reported to us as a company on sexual exploitation, a matter that we have zero tolerance to. The BBC report came to us as a shock and we have taken proactive measures to enhance reporting structures in the estates and factories,” Ms Den said during a meeting with the MPs.
Mr Sammy Kirui, the James Finlay Director for Corporate Affairs and Mr Daniel Kirui, the Human Resource Director said the company had clear policies on sexual harassment of whatever nature at the workplace.
“We have active cases in court relating to sexual harassment and other crimes, which the company proactively accelerated for arrest and prosecution of the suspects after reports were made by the victims who were facilitated to record statements with the police,” Mr Kirui said.
Mr Kirui stated that one suspect had been handed a life sentence in prison by the judiciary after being found guilty of sexual exploitation while others had been jailed for between 15-20 years in prison.