Multinational tea giants seek to redeem image after sexual abuse exposé

A tea plucking machine in Kericho County in this photo taken on June 30, 2022.  Eketerra and James Finlay tea companies were in the centre of a controversy following a BBC exposé showing managers and supervisors sexually exploiting junior female employees.

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • James Finlays Kenya and Ekaterra Tea Kenya fingered over workers’ exploitation.
  • BBC documentary showed deep-rooted cases of senior employees sexually preying on the lowest cadre of workers.
  • Organisations say they were unaware of the exploitation before the information broke.;
  • Those named in the exposé suspended; organisations have taken measures to curb recurrence of similar cases.

Two multinational tea companies operating in the South Rift region that have lately been in the limelight over sexual exploitation of female workers and cases of gender-based violence, have put in place measures to reverse the trend.

James Finlays Kenya - which is in the process of completing a sale process to Sri Lankan based multinational Browns Investments Plc – and Ekaterra Tea Kenya, have been fingered over workers’ exploitation by managers, supervisors and contractors.

A documentary by the BBC aired on February 20, this year and special reports carried by Nation.Africa showed deep-rooted cases of senior employees sexually preying on the lowest cadre of workers, especially tea pickers.

As a result, International supermarkets chains – Tesco and Sainsbury’s condemned the incidents, while Starbucks said it had suspended purchasing from James Finlay & company in Kenya – until the sexual exploitation cases are resolved.

Both James Finlays Kenya and Ekaterra Plc have stated that they were not aware of the exploitation before the information broke, but had since suspended those named in the exposé and taken remedial measures to curb recurrence of similar cases.

Ekaterra Plc Managing Director in charge of Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania Slyvia Ten Den, said the company’s management was not aware of cases of sexual abuses prior.

 “We have no cases reported to us, as a company, on sexual exploitation, a matter that we have zero tolerance to. The 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 when the story broke.

James Finlays with its headquarters in Aberdeen, Scotland was founded in 1750, as a Glasgow cotton trader and is part of part of the Swire Group, a global firm with its products – tea and coffee - stocked by leading outlets in the UK including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Starbucks, the Co-op and Bettys &Taylors  Group.

The multinational company commissioned two independent investigations - by NGO Partner Africa, which specialises in ethical working practices, and law firm Bowmans - to examine the specific allegations made against it.

James Finlays Kenya Director for Corporate Affairs Sammy Kirui, said the company has clear policies on sexual harassment of whatever nature at the workplace and had zero tolerance to it.

“We have active cases in court relating to sexual harassment and other crimes. The company proactively accelerated for arrest and prosecution of the suspects after victims, who were facilitated to record statements with the police, reported to us,” Mr Kirui said a last week, in follow up to earlier company statements on the matter.

The two companies have not reinstated the contractors, supervisors and managers accused of sexual exploitation by the employees.

Florence Bore, the Cabinet Secretary for Labour and Social Protection said the government will deal firmly with perpetrators of sexual exploitation in the workplace.

“It is a fact that despite the seemly elaborate and robust structures put in place to prevent and address sexual harassment cases, the vice is still being experienced in the two companies which indicates structural malaise,” Ms Florence Bore, the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Labour and Social Protection told Nation.Africa last week.

“There seems to be a cloud of fear in reporting to the managers and the tendency of some managers to cover their colleagues so that the matters do not reach the top leadership,” she added.

Ms Bore said counselling services and other forms of psycho-social support were available to the affected workers to help them deal with trauma.

“The government has undertaken a systems audit of the structures and reporting channels in the tea companies to ensure the workers are protected against any form of exploitation" the CS explained.

Dickson Sang, the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) Kericho branch secretary, said there was a need for the government to put in place measures that would ensure cases of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence are eradicated in the multinational tea companies.

“Unfortunately, the victims out of fear of victimisation and stigma, have shunned contacts with the police in what may enable the suspects go scot-free in the cases that have taken a local and international dimension” Mr Sang noted last Thursday.


Silas Njibwakale, the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) chairman told Nation.Africa that the cases, which he termed as isolated and unfortunate, were being dealt with by the police as they were criminal in nature.

Through a Kericho advocate Gilbert Kemboi of Kemboi Chambers Advocates, at least 50 workers have filed a petition against the multinationals at the High Court in Kericho, seeking compensation for violation of their basic rights following the sexual exploitation claims.

“Finlay’s 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 in court filings.

He said the women had been subjected to rampant, repetitive non-consensual sex that resulted in a high rate of HIV infection and that their families have broken up as a result.

The National Assembly Departmental Committee on Labour chaired by Runyenjes Member of Parliament Erick Muchangi, said the sexual molestation victims were not willing to speak for fear of harassment and sacking by the companies accused of abetting the crime.

Company management

“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. Workers and shop stewards accuse middle level managers 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 in March after a meeting with the company management.

The Rainforest Alliance suspended the certification for products of the two companies on May 9, with the victims lured with offers of light duties and promotions in the plantations.

It is an international non-profit making organisation that works in areas of business, agriculture and forests to protect the environment and create better working conditions for workers, and also local economies.

The alliance confirmed that it carried out investigative audits on estates, which confirmed the presence of multiple non-conformities of social and management criteria of the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agricultural standards.

However, the suspension was lifted on July 17, after the companies closed the identified non-conformities areas in the certification standards.

“Following the results of thorough recent verification audits, the Rainforest Alliance announces that the suspensions on both Ekaterra Tea Kenya and James Finlay Kenya have been lifted with immediate effect” the Alliance stated, adding that it was working with the two companies to improve approach to preventing and addressing human rights violations.

The Alliance is currently working with the two companies to “build transparent, trustworthy systems for monitoring, detecting, and remediating key human rights abuses.

"Based on these results, we have taken the decision to suspend the certification of both certificate holders in accordance with the Rainforest Alliance Certification and Auditing Rules V1.2," the organisation said in a statement.

The cases have opened the lid on the unfair working practices in the multinational tea companies at a time they are involved in a spat with local communities over mechanisation in their estate.