Unilever tea workers in Kenya scale up fight for reparations to UN

The victims said threats of violence were spoken about openly on the plantation and reported to management, but not acted upon

A group of Kenyan tea plantation workers who say Unilever failed to protect them from ethnic violence have referred their battle for reparations up to the United Nations.

The 218 victims include the families of seven workers who were killed and 56 who say they were raped when armed men invaded the multinational’s plantation near the western town of Kericho during the post-election turmoil in 2007-2008.

“There are heartbreaking stories,” Daniel Leader, of the international law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the workers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There are many individuals who have suffered such severe physical harm by being attacked with machetes and clubs that they’re unable to work.”

Quality of supply chain

Unilever, which buys 10% of the world’s tea supply and owns major brands such as Lipton, PG Tips and Brooke Bond, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The Anglo-Dutch multinational has previously said the scale of the post-election violence, which killed an estimated 1,200 nationwide, was not foreseeable.

From fashion to food, major businesses are coming under increasing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure that their global supply chains treat their workers fairly.

The complaint has been made to the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

It is not asking the UN to consider whether Unilever failed to protect the residents of its plantation but whether it breached its responsibility under UN principles on business and human rights to provide a remedy for the harm they suffered.

Sitting ducks

The victims said threats of violence were spoken about openly on the plantation and reported to management but not acted upon, placing them at significant risk of attack. By contrast, they said, steps were taken to protect managers and expatriates.

The tea pickers, most of them from ethnic groups that are not indigenous to the area, were “sitting ducks” when the violence erupted, Leader said. Some of the women contracted HIV after being raped; other survivors were destitute, he added.

Unilever failed to provide assistance after the violence and stopped their wages for six months, exacerbating their suffering, victims said.

The victims lodged an unsuccessful civil claim for damages against Unilever in England in 2016.

The company argued that it could not be held responsible for any alleged failings of its Kenyan subsidiary. But the victims say Unilever has tried to hide behind its corporate structure to block any prospect of a remedy.

Bad for business

Leader said he hoped Unilever would meet the victims and agree to medical and psychiatric assessments in order to arrange a welfare scheme, adding that the sum involved would be “small change” for the multinational.

He said the UN working group could issue a declaration on whether Unilever’s behaviour met international standards and submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council highlighting any breaches committed.

Although Unilever cannot be forced to take action, Leader said public condemnation by the world’s leading body on business and human rights would be a big blow to a company that promotes itself as one of the world’s most ethical.

“It’s potentially very damaging reputationally to Unilever if they continue to stonewall these victims,” he said.

* Asaase Radio 99.5 – tune in or log on to broadcasts online.

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