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10 Oct 2021

Emily Dugan, The Times

Kenya: Tea workers file 'landmark' lawsuit against James Finlay over injuries allegedly caused by working conditions

"The crippling cost of your cuppa: Kenyan workers sue British company", 10 October 2021

By the time Rebecca Nyakondo was in her mid-forties, her back was so damaged from picking tea...that the pain stopped her picking up her youngest child. For 17 years, she said, she was paid as little as £1.50 per day to pick for 12 hours with a rudimentary woven basket carrying up to 20kg strapped to her back...

Now 1,300 of the workers, including her, are bringing a landmark lawsuit against the British-owned tea farm to win compensation for the injuries they claim were caused by their working conditions...

The tea that Nyakondo and others harvested is still stocked by many big brands, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Starbucks, the Co-Op and Bettys and Taylors Group.

Nyakondo...lived on and worked for the British-owned James Finlay plantations in the Kenyan highlands. The plaintiffs are claiming for damages caused by negligence, arguing that workers permanently harmed their spines by being exposed to conditions that it was clear would hurt them...

...the low pay depended on how much was picked, which she said incentivised overwork...

James Finlay’s estates...include a Fair Trade-certified factory and farm...

A professor of orthopaedics travelled to Kenya from Edinburgh to examine seven original claimants in the case and found evidence of injuries to their spines.

The case has now been filed in the Scottish Court of Session...

The initial case brought four years ago in a lower Scottish court stalled because a court-ordered inspection of the farm by experts and claimants was blocked by James Finlay in the Kenyan courts.

That case is now headed for Kenya’s highest court after it was ruled unconstitutional to enforce a foreign court order. A spokesman for the company said that if it had sought to implement a Scottish order in Kenya it would have been in direct contempt of the Kenyan courts.

A spokesman for FairTrade...said it was investigating and would “ensure that the concerns and allegations of workers are heard and any human rights and/or non-compliance issues addressed”.

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “...We take allegations of this nature extremely seriously and we are in close contact with James Finlay Ltd and understand they will be appointing an independent third party to assess conditions at its sites in Kenya.”

Tesco said it indirectly sourced a small amount of tea from James Finlay Kenya and that it was investigating the allegations.

Starbucks said it was aware of the claims and had been in contact with James Finlay Kenya. It said all the tea it bought from Finlays was Rainforest Alliance certified. Julius Nganga, Rainforest Alliance’s east Africa manager, said he could not comment on the lawsuit and said it was “committed to improving working conditions on certified farms around the globe across various key sectors, including tea”.

The Co-op said all its tea was FairTrade and that it worked immediately with all parties if problems were identified.

Bettys and Taylors said it bought a small amount of green tea from James Finlay Kenya for its Taylors blends but was “already working to move this small purchase to a supplier that we have a stronger relationship with”.

James Finlay Kenya said it was committed to “maintaining high standards and working conditions for all our employees in Kenya”. The company said it would “thoroughly investigate” the allegations and appoint an independent third party to visit and report on conditions, and that “any failures or shortcomings will be fully addressed”.

It said its workers were paid according to a collective bargaining agreement with the union...

The company added: “This case focuses on allegations relating to a period when some of our workers still picked tea by hand. For economic reasons, this is no longer the case in our Kenyan operations, although it is still commonplace elsewhere in Kenya...

“Under normal circumstances anywhere in the world, the place to address issues relating to employment is in local courts. It is perfectly in order to resolve allegations brought by Kenyan citizens regarding their employment in Kenya, in the Kenyan courts.

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