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Kenyan tealeaf pickers, overworked and underpaid, to get their day in court

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By Lisa VIVES

AFTER years of seeing their complaints stalled, postponed, and thrown out of court, some 700 Kenyan plantation workers have finally won their bid to sue a British-based tea company for imposing work conditions that they say caused crippling physical harm while getting paid poverty wages at a Kenyan tea plantation.

In the landmark lawsuit, the James Finlay (Kenya) Ltd. tea company is alleged to have exposed workers to conditions that would result in permanent damage to their spines. The case was filed by Ronald K. Onyango Advocates, a Nairobi-based human rights-focused law firm.

Tea country in Kericho – where one of Finlay’s massive estates stretches across 25,000 acres – is a hot spot for tourists who are drawn to the region’s “beautiful rolling hills carpeted in neat, bright green tea bushes as far as the eye can see,” writes TripAdvisor. “The climate here is perfect for tea with rain falling almost every afternoon.”

Yet workers have few opportunities to appreciate the area’s natural beauty. In testimony before court, tea-pickers said they had to work up to 12 hours a day in a six-day week and carry up to 26 lbs of the tea leaf pickings on their back for over half a mile of rough and hilly ground and slopes. In some cases, they were expected to collect up to 66 lbs of tea in a day or not get paid.

This gave rise to tripping and falling while carrying the pickings baskets and also prolonged the bending, twisting and reaching required in gathering the tea.

The case strikes at the heart of an uncomfortable reality, wrote Emily Dugan, prize-winning reporter for the UK Sunday Times, “that British companies continue to impose working conditions in poorer countries far below what would be acceptable at home.”

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In the U.S., Finlay has headquarters in Lincoln, Rhode Island, and offices in Texas and Florham Park, NJ. It is sold widely in the ShopRite chain in NJ.

In Kenya, some 7,000 people live and work on Finlay’s farms, harvesting 28 million kilos of leaves every year. The work is alleged to have accelerated the aging of its pickers’ backs for as much as 20 years.

An initial lawsuit was filed in 2017 against the Finlay company which has been fighting the case since then. Initially, Finlay avoided liability by using a ‘complex corporate structure’ which, they claimed, alienated it from the management of its global subsidiaries.

They further deny that anybody still picks by hand. However, handpicking is still used to harvest quality tea, noted the Voice of America, because it is easier to take two leaves and a bud without damaging the plant.

Efforts by growers to introduce mechanisation, however, are making headway. Hundreds of employees have lost their jobs since a court ruled last year against a union’s attempt to ban tea leaf harvesting machines. Kenya Tea Workers Union rep Jared Momanyi said job losses were likely to increase.

When contacted by the press, a spokesman for Finlay said the company was saddened by the alleged mistreatment of employees. “We cannot comment on the ongoing litigation, but Finlay’s is committed to maintaining high standards and working conditions for our employees,” the spokesman said.

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