A century later, Kericho tea estates still a sweatshop and hotbed of impunity

Tea picking

Workers operate a tea picking machine in one of the privately owned tea plantations in Kericho County.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

A sex scandal uncovered by BBC investigative journalists has thrown the Kericho tea plantations back into the news. Ignominy arrives in small doses. These plantations are some of the last remnants of colonial rule and stand out as relics of an old order, the spaces where impunity thrives.

To evade any censure — and this is an ancient colonial labour practice — the tea farms still hire the likes of John Chebochok’s Sislo Holdings to be the labour recruiting agents. That way, they can underpay tea pickers and get away with it — after all, those are employees of John Chebochok; the hired contractor.

This indentured labour practice is as old as the colonial plantations. John Chebochok is our modern-day William Harry Billington, the Kericho settler who pioneered cheap labour recruitment for the tea plantations about 100 years ago.

His recruitment agency hired the first generation of tea pickers from neighbouring districts of Kisii and Kisumu and set standards of cheap labour and degradation of workers within the tea industry.

As we all know by now, cheap African labour was one of the promises made by colonial government to attract white settlers. And since Britain did not know what it would do with the ex-officers, Kenya was proposed as a better place for settlement, and the ex-soldiers would only be required to supervise labour and what would become, as Elspeth Huxley tells us, "The White Man's Country". That was not to be — although we still have pockets of White Man's Country.

Billington was a World War I veteran who was severely wounded while fighting for the Empire. He was part of the group of injured soldiers taken to Kericho by the colonial government as members of British East African Disabled Officers Cooperative (Beadoc). Little is known today of Beadoc, but the story of Kericho tea plantations, and the Kericho town that emerged from settler activities, is the story of Beadoc. Some of the bad manners are as old as the colony.

We know that Billington had borrowed some of the labour practices from Indian plantations. And here is the context. When Britain found that it could no longer sell Indian-grown opium to China, which was then exclusively growing tea, it opened its own tea plantations in India's Assam region. Britain had by then attacked China, during the Opium War, and forced them to cede Hong Kong and open its ports to British imports.

After opening the tea plantations in 1833, Britain realised that this was a labour-intensive crop that required something close to slave labour, which had been banned the same year. So, they turned to indentured labour –—contracted labour that is similar to slave labour. This had been used in the Caribbean sugar plantations after slaves were set free.

Indentured servitude 

So, borrowing the practice from India, Billington would recruit cheap labour and become the manager of this indentured servitude, as that unfree labour is normally known. In indentured servitude, recruitment was done from the outlying areas — or overseas, as happened during the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway. And that explains why we still have a problem in the tea plantations.

What I also see here are economic institutions that were violently introduced, and where labour is far from humanised. For example, some 100 years ago this year, the Kipsigis and Talai communities of Kericho were dehumanised and violently ordered to vacate this land to give way to a project proposed by the colonial government to reward the injured World War I soldiers.

The atrocities carried out in Kericho, and the violence that continued to protect these farms, now triggers community demands for compensation. In a sense, the tea plantations still represent some masculine domination. That is why the Kipsigis and the Talai are still fighting to repossess these spaces, which are tiny islands of the continued colonial enterprise. The two communities have not only asked for compensation but also vowed to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

In history, the likes of Chebochok, and his sex-for-labour demands, could be called the 'violent intermediaries' — to borrow the term from Michelle Moyd's book on the role of Askaris in maintaining colonial enterprise. But that is half the story.

Initially, the Kericho farms were not supposed to grow tea. Instead, when they were cleared of the indigenous owners, the settlers were organised to grow flax as a cooperative. One of the letters sent to the Colonial Office by Lt Col Hughes Ridge in December 1918 — and while seeking approval for the project — said that “flax growing in East Africa is not a speculation, it is a certainty”.

And he hoped that Beadoc would plant some 5,000 acres of flax within 18 months and generate enough capital to pay for the investment in the first instance. Agricultural historian CJ Duder noted that "flax seemed ideal for Kenya. It demanded masses of cheap labour, which the colony's Africans could supply, whether they wanted to or not …and detailed supervision of both labour and machinery, which the white settlers could provide."

Thus, forced labour was part of this effort. The colony was to provide land and cheap labour. This small flax colony would be part of an expanded effort to populate the Kenya colony with ex-soldiers in the one-million-acre project. But the global flax market collapsed, and most of the Beadoc members were bankrupted and their investments ruined.

By 1925, Beadoc had run into debts of about £62,200, leading to an auction that saw the land bought by Brooke Bond and James Finlay for £3 an acre. Before the sale of Beadoc’s only asset, the land, there was a battle between the government, the National Bank of South Afica — which was owed £10,000 — and the Colonial Office. Nobody asked the Kipsigis and Talai whether they wanted their land.

Finlay had grown tea in India and was interested in the Kericho land. If you check the records, you will find there have been stories that follow this company. Over the years, allegations on conditions on its tea plantations have always surfaced, including rising profits resulting from the “cheapness of unskilled labour in poor countries like Kenya and Bangladesh”, as one report in 1979 put it. It has also been accused of placing tea pickers in “squalorous slave labour” camps.

Cheap rations of food 

There was, for instance, a campaign report in 1979, which said the workers lived “inside the gardens in labour lines of mud and thatch huts” and were issued with cheap rations of food and depended on the benevolence of the owners for medical treatment, education and water supply.

They were also required, if necessary, "to work as personal servants to estate managers". Finally, it said the tea companies had consistently failed to acknowledge their obligations and kept on “extracting generous profits from their coolies while providing them with little more than the wherewithal to remain alive and able to work”. If that has changed, it is for the worse, and most of the large tea estates copied their treatment of workers from the Kericho farms.

There is already an ongoing case in the UK filed by 1,300 current and former James Finlay workers demanding millions of shillings as compensation for neck and back injuries sustained during work. They have claimed that this tea multinational is responsible for their ill health.

But to stop the judicial collection of evidence, the Aberdeen-registered company had turned to Kenyan courts to frustrate the ex-workers' class suit by blocking investigators from entering its Kericho farms. The UK court has, however, ordered James Finlay to drop its Kenyan cases — and allow investigations.

But it all boils down to a long history where tea workers are dehumanised — and have little, if any, say, either on their labour — or on their bodies. And that is why the recently revealed demands for sex are not isolated incidents. It is a practice in the tea industry. The entire tea industry in Kenya is organised like a scam.

[email protected], Twitter: @johnkamau1