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24 Aug 2022

Libby Brooks, The Guardian

Kenya: James Finlay Kenya accused of ‘vexatious and oppressive’ attempts to block lawsuit by tea workers over working conditions; court order permits workers to continue class action

"Kenyan tea pickers on Scottish-run farm to pursue health issues in UK court", 24 August 2022

More than a 1,000 Kenyan tea pickers who say that harsh and exploitative working conditions on a Scottish-run tea farm have caused them crippling health complaints can now pursue their class action in an Edinburgh court.

Lawyers acting for the tea pickers have won an order from the court of session, Scotland’s highest civil court, telling James Finlay Kenya Ltd (JFK) to abandon attempts to block the suit through the Kenyan courts.

The judge, Lord Braid, condemned the company’s “vexatious and oppressive” practices in trying to derail the claim...

The company has defended its health and safety record, and carries the Fairtrade mark on its products, as well as certifications from the Soil Association and the Rainforest Alliance. On its company website Finlays describes its Kenyan estates as “a thriving community of thousands of employees and outgrowers and their families who live, work and study there”.

But in previous testimony, workers claimed that oppressive working conditions caused them significant and permanent musculoskeletal damage. They said they had to work up to 12 hours a day in a six-day week, carry up to 26lb of the tea leaf pickings on their back over rough slopes, and in some cases meet a weight target of 66lb of tea a day or not get paid.

This work, as well as the prolonged bending, twisting and reaching required to gather tea leaves, is argued to have accelerated the ageing of pickers’ backs by as much as 20 years.

JFK originally tried to stop the suit going ahead in Scotland and more recently pursued blocking action in Kenya, arguing that the Scottish claim was an assault on Kenyan sovereignty. But the workers’ lawyers argued that JFK had engaged in a “deliberate campaign to defeat the ends of justice and cause distress”.

The lawyer for the pickers, Patrick McGuire of Thompsons, said the claim was based around a combination of “oppressive” working conditions and a pay model often based around impossible picking targets....

JFK has been approached for comment.

The company’s argument that Scottish courts do not have jurisdiction over Kenyan work injury claims will be heard at the court of session at a later date.