Workers at a tea farm in western Kenya © Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
Workers at a tea farm in western Kenya © Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Firms launch supply chain inquiries after sexual abuse scandal on tea plantations

20 February 2023

Unilever and James Finlay & Co have launched investigations after a BBC investigation claimed women are being forced into sex to gain work across tea plantations in Kenya.

Unilever owned PG Tips and Lipton at the time of the investigation, and James Finlay & Co supplies tea to Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Starbucks.

The BBC said 75 out of 100 women they interviewed at the plantations in Kericho said they had experienced sexual harassment by management to gain employment or renew their contracts.

One woman said she contracted HIV after being forced to have sex with a manager at one of the sites, which resulted in her husband leaving her. 

An undercover reporter for the BBC was also filmed being pinned against a window by a recruiter after she was told a job interview had to be conducted in a hotel room. She was told: “I'll give you some money, then I'll give you a job. I have helped you, help me.”

Unilever owned PG Tips and Lipton up until 2021 when it sold the brands to CVC Capital Partners in a deal worth €4.5bn. The 18 month-long investigation started before the sale. 

The consumer goods firm faced similar allegations over its tea supply chains in a 2011 report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, prompting the firm to introduce reporting mechanisms for victims. However, the BBC found such reporting mechanisms are not being properly implemented.

Unilever became a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) in 2017, which aims to improve supply chain standards. It said: “We are very disappointed that the measures put in place to make it easier to report, detect and investigate abuse failed to detect and address the issues highlighted by the BBC and we welcome the fact that Lipton Teas and Infusions will commission a full and independent investigation into these serious allegations.

“We want to understand from these investigations what happened and why, so we can learn lessons from this to strengthen our work to ensure value chains are free from violence and harassment against women.”

James Finlay & Co, which is the second-largest tea company operating in Kenya’s Rift Valley, told the BBC it was investigating whether its operations in Kenya have “an endemic issue with sexual violence”.

It further said it had suspended the employee who faced accusations, and said it had reported him to the police.

A Tesco spokesperson said it had been in “constant dialogue” with James Finlay to ensure the firm is taking “robust measures”, including “the launch of an independent investigation, the suspension of the contractors involved, and supporting the relevant local authorities with their work. It’s vital any recommendations from the investigation are acted on and are shared with the wider industry and local communities.”

“We are deeply concerned about the distressing claims and have taken immediate action to suspend purchasing from the estate in question in Kenya.”

Starbucks told SM: “We are deeply concerned about the distressing claims and have taken immediate action to suspend purchasing from the estate in question in Kenya.”

Sophie De Salis, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told Supply Management the allegations must be “swiftly investigated and the victims must be safeguarded”.

“BRC members are working very closely with Finlay’s to ensure there is a robust investigation in place, with the right level of oversight, transparency, evaluation, and gender importance. The investigation must take a systemic approach to governance and the safety of workers in the Kenyan tea industry must be guaranteed.”

A spokesperson from the ETP told SM: “We take allegations of this nature extremely seriously. Whilst we do not comment on individual cases, the ETP adopts a zero-tolerance approach to any abuses of human rights.

“ETP will continue to work with any organisation in the tea sector that is committed to eliminating such abuses from their operations and supply chains and we believe that our members must take responsibility for their supply chain. Many stakeholders have a role to play to address systemic deep-rooted issues that exist in tea – including companies, governments, unions, civil society, and ETP.”

James Finlay and Sainsbury’s have been approached for comment. 

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