KENYA – Multinational coffeehouse chain Starbucks has suspended the purchase of tea from James Finlay & Co, the second-largest tea company operating in Kenya’s Rift Valley, following an exposé by BBC Africa on how women in tea firms are sexually assaulted for work.

Other big purchasers, supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsbury’s–which have been buying from the estates exposed in the coverage–have also condemned the actions and called for an immediate investigation of the distressing claims.

From the quote in BBC News saying: “These horrific allegations have no place in our supply chain,” UK retail chain Sainsbury’s indicated the possibility of stopping buying the product from the local producers.

The BBC Eye documentary revealed widespread sexual abuse of women by senior managers in exchange for work opportunities at two tea estates owned by UK firms James Finlay & Company and Unilever — which has since sold its brands to CVC Capital Partners.

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 had 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.”

Meanwhile, James Finlay & Co termed the testimonies of the women in the exposé as deeply shocking and upsetting and added that it had suspended and reported the employee who faced accusations to the police.

The allegation has sparked a lot of debate in Kenya, leading to the formation of a committee to look into the allegations.

National Assembly Deputy speaker Gladys Shollei said the committee will investigate the allegations and report back within two weeks.

“I am concerned by the allegations of appalling behavior made in this documentary — sexual abuse and exploitation has no place in society,” the UK High Commissioner to Kenya Jane Mariott said.

Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) has also come out and demanded the compensation of damages for physical and emotional health to the affected individuals regardless of the two UK firms’ efforts to address the issue.

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.

In a statement, the unionists also demanded that the government “moves with speed” to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 190 on the elimination of violence and harassment in workplaces to prevent such abuse from recurring in workplaces.

The union wants the two firms to offer direct employment to all the contracted employees instead of outsourcing labor. In explaining its proposal, the union said outsourcing affects the rights and welfare of workers since they are forced to work at the mercy of contracted companies.

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