LONDON - Two British tea manufacturers on Monday faced accusations of sexual abuse on tea plantations in Kenya, according to an undercover investigation by the BBC.
Journalists spoke to 100 women working on plantations producing tea for world-famous brands, for a joint BBC Africa Eye/Panorama television documentary.
“More than 70 women on Kenyan tea farms, owned for years by two British companies, told the BBC they had been sexually abused by their supervisors,” the broadcaster said on its website.
The documentary focused on a Kenyan plantation that at the time was owned by British household goods giant Unilever, and another one that is owned by the tea group James Finlay & Co.
The BBC spoke with “dozens” of victims who said they had no choice but to give in to managers’ sexual demands or lose their jobs.
One was reportedly infected with HIV by her supervisor, while others became pregnant.
One supervisor is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl who was living on site at one of the plantations.
Secret filming, meanwhile, showed that local bosses had sought to pressure an undercover BBC reporter for sex.
Unilever told AFP it was “deeply shocked by the allegations in the BBC programme”.
The group added in a statement that it had “worked hard for many years to address the very serious issues of sexual and gender-based violence against women in the tea industry”.
“This included improving the gender balance of team leaders, upgrading the grievance handling process and strengthening awareness-raising and training.”
Unilever added that it was “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”.
Ms Nathalie Roos, chief executive of Lipton Teas and Infusions, now owned by a private equity group, added that the company was “shocked and dismayed” by the allegations.
“We immediately suspended the managers at the centre of the allegations and launched a full independent investigation,” Ms Roos said in a statement sent to AFP.
“We will take the most stringent action if this inquiry, which is still ongoing, finds any evidence of wrongdoing.
“As a woman and a new CEO of the tea market leader, I am taking a determined approach to making a meaningful difference for people across the industry, including women’s safety, which is particularly close to my heart.”
James Finlay & Co added that it found the allegations “deeply shocking” and had suspended two individuals named in the documentary. It has also launched an independent probe.
“There is no place for sexual abuse or harassment anywhere in our business, so this evidence of sexual exploitation at James Finlay Kenya is deeply shocking,” said Finlays Group managing director James Woodrow.
In 2022, Unilever completed the sale of its global tea business, including the brands Lipton and PG Tips, to CVC Capital Partners in a deal worth 4.5 billion euros (S$6.4 billion). It has since been rebranded Lipton Teas and Infusions. AFP