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Article

28 Mar 2021

Author:
Emily Dugan, The Sunday Times

Malawi: ‘Ten rapes’ at tea farm supplying PG Tips; incl. cos. comments

"Ten rapes’ at tea farm supplying PG Tips", 28 March 2021

The British owners of tea estates in Malawi that supply most of the UK’s biggest brands, including PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Tetley, are being sued over the alleged sexual abuse of workers.

... The claim, which names 36 alleged male perpetrators, alleges that there is “a systemic problem of male workers at plantations abusing their positions of power” to rape, sexually assault, harass and coerce women they supervise into sex.

The lawsuit has been filed in the High Court against Lujeri as well as its British owners, PGI Group, who bought the estates from Unilever in 1996.

... The lawsuit, brought by the law firm Leigh Day, argues that PGI and Lujeri were negligent in failing to protect women from sexual abuse at work. PGI [...] contends that as a holding company it only employs a team of four and does not take an active role in the operations of the businesses it owns. PGI has applied to strike out the claim against it. However, its chief executive, Sebastian Hobhouse, is also a non-executive director at Lujeri and the business is wholly owned by PGI. Lujeri is disputing the jurisdiction of the English courts to hear the claim against it and so has not yet filed a defence to the claim...

... Fairtrade has suspended its certification of Lujeri’s tea production facility since the lawsuit prompted an audit that found “areas of non-compliance”. The estates, unlike the factory, were not Fairtrade certified in the first place, although the logo is used on the company’s website.

Lujeri is also certified by the Rainforest Alliance. It said on Friday the alliance was aware of the lawsuit in February 2020 but unable to investigate properly until last month because of Covid restrictions. It said audits were being reviewed and would be made public “in the coming week”.

... Grant Bramsen, managing director of Lujeri Teas Estates said: “The entire management team at Lujeri has been deeply troubled by these allegations. Following the Oxfam report in 2016, we implemented processes that we judged would address the risks of abuse. Clearly, they did not go far enough. Our absolute priority is to ensure we implement Impactt’s recommendations to the letter and that the potential for any form of abuse is stamped out.”

PGI said: “We have been shocked and deeply dismayed by details of the allegations made against Lujeri Tea Estates, relating to the conduct of certain male supervisors ... Since learning of these allegations, we have been kept fully informed of the investigation, review and actions that the management team at Lujeri immediately undertook.”

Unilever, which lists Lujeri as a supplier and has several tea brands including PG Tips and Lipton, said: “Any abuse of workers is unacceptable and we believe that the correct approach to tackling such deep-seated problems is for us to continue to work with industry groups and partners to help the Malawi tea industry improve the lives of tea workers and bring an end to sexual and gender based violence.”

Tetley said it had only sourced a small amount of its tea from Lujeri and it was temporarily suspending supply until further investigations were complete.

Simon Hotchkin, head of sustainability at Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, which owns Yorkshire Tea, said: “We’re in close contact with Lujeri to make sure swift action is being taken. What we’ve seen so far is encouraging, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done. If our suppliers aren’t able to improve this situation, we’d stop buying from them. It’s not a decision we’d take lightly, because it’s hard to overstate the impact of suddenly cutting off some of the world’s poorest workers and smallholders from their source of income.”

Timeline