Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

Tea pluckers say the household-goods giant failed to protect them from brutal and foreseeable attacks.


At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers. “They spoke the local language,” Anne testified, but “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in postelection violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and therefore that it should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted with Anne and another woman, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the “wrong” candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then–managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Once the violence ended, Unilever shut down its plantation for six months and put its workers on unpaid leave. Many of the survivors had been robbed of all their belongings and were left only with unpaid hospital bills.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

Since the survivors began their struggle for reparations, Unilever has donated millions of dollars to UN Women, the United Nations entity that promotes gender equality and female empowerment, and to feminist nongovernmental organizations, which release research papers and run media campaigns that paint the company as a corporate role model for its treatment of women. Unilever highlights these partnerships to assure employees and recruits that its businesses help eliminate poverty and boost women’s economic and social rights. The cornerstone of Unilever’s feminism is the idea that providing a woman like Anne with an income and giving her the confidence to “dream bigger” enables her to lift her family out of poverty.

Some of Unilever’s most influential beneficiaries among feminist groups appear to be swayed by the company’s charity and refuse even to discuss the massacre.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the United Nations to step in—not to UN Women, which continues to celebrate the company as a feminist champion, but to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me, “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify as ethnically Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

Anne told me that before 2007, relations among the different ethnic groups had been fairly cordial. For her teenage daughters and 11-year-old son, the tea estates were the only home they’d ever known, the place where they were born, went to school, played with friends, and attended church. Anne said she felt proud to work for Unilever and appreciated that the London office regularly sent managers to make sure everything was OK. It made her feel like she was “part of a global company…that cared.”

Still, Unilever paid only 10 Kenyan shillings per kilo of tea leaves plucked, which made life challenging. It meant that Anne and Makori usually worked seven days a week for an average weekly wage of $37 and $52, respectively, and never had quite enough to pay their bills. “We reported for work at 6:30 in the morning,” she told me, “and often finished 12 hours later.”

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

One of the survivors, a man who says a Unilever coworker and five other men attacked him with machetes, clubs, and swords, leaving him permanently disabled, and whose wife was raped by others, wrote in his statement that the supervisors “did not want us to go home because most of us were registered to vote locally. The only reason I was in the Kericho area at the time of the post-election violence was because of my work on the estate.”

The impending election had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues. “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that “something bad may happen after the election.”

Her fears were widely shared among the Kisiis on the plantation. A woman who asked to be called Mary told me that coworkers threatened to drive her out if Odinga lost and inquired about the value of her possessions, implying that they’d be stolen. In testimony submitted to the London court nearly a decade later, many other Kisiis claimed that they’d experienced similar xenophobic and intimidating treatment in the weeks before the election. According to one worker’s testimony, her Kalenjin colleagues told her that “Kisiis would be killed” if Odinga lost and that they “should start moving away before blood was shed.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet. “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,” she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to Mary and other survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying, “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be “forced to leave” if they didn’t.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that “there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded.” They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to “secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing,” while “no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers.” Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at the meetings, refused to comment on them when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation,” said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever “created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity.”

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. “We quickly locked our doors,” she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs. Some claimants said the marauders yelled that “this wasn’t [our] land and that [we] should be killed or should leave.” Mary testified that she called her manager and pleaded for security but was told that she and her coworkers needed to “protect themselves” instead.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled,” Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. “Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that its Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers “band together” and “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues and identified them by name in their witness statements. One woman told the court that, shortly before the election results were announced, she had seen coworkers “armed with pangas [machetes] and rungus [clubs]” roaming the tea estates, “threatening the Kisiis that if ODM does not win they will be forced to leave.”

The next morning, she was attacked by five of her colleagues, whom she knew by name. The men “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

Unilever also refused to tell me the number of people it believes were attacked on its plantation and, confusingly, responded to another question with the claim that “93 percent of all people affected” had returned to work when the plantation reopened in 2008. The company wouldn’t clarify the figures that underpin this percentage or whether they include rape victims.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii, where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii. The rest of the family lives there to this day.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads, “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s. “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,” she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school. “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

Mary told me that the attacks had left her family destitute and had led her children to drop out of school as well.

A male survivor who claims Unilever refused to pay any of his family’s medical bills told the court that the “wages I did not receive and the money which was stolen from my home I could have used to educate my children,” most of whom left school after the attacks. Permanently disabled and suffering from chest pains, the man said he “still cannot do any meaningful work that can support my children and my wife.”

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much Unilever gave the workers or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time. “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter, but he has asserted that the economic empowerment and “safety of women working across our supply chain [is] a top priority” in multiple brochures that the corporation published with UN Women between 2016 and 2019.

When you visit Unilever’s careers website, a talent-recruitment bot named Una may tell you, as she recently told me, that the company’s key values are “integrity, responsibility, respect and pioneering.” The career site may also assure you that by joining Unilever’s global team of 168,000 employees, “you can feel good about what you do…bring your purpose to life…and create a better world.” Are you passionate about racial equality and gender justice? Then Unilever wants to be the place for you.

A self-declared leader of a new global movement of feminist corporations, Unilever says its business model has proved that investing in female workers like Anne is both the moral and the economically smart thing to do. In the words of Unilever’s current CEO, Alan Jope, “The immutable laws of intersectionality mean that the better the job that we do for women of colour, the better chance we have of progressing gender equality everywhere.” Giving such women an income will boost their countries’ development, especially since female workers “re-invest 90 percent of their incomes back into their families,” Unilever alleges, whereas their male counterparts spend most of their money on themselves.

Unilever has won plenty of awards and commendations for its support for female workers. Oxfam, CARE International, Women Deliver, and the International Center for Research on Women all hold it up as the feminist corporation par excellence and praise its top male executives as allies.

UN financial records show that soon after the Kenyan workers filed their case against Unilever, the corporation bumped up its yearly contributions to UN Women, from less than $40,000 in 2015 to more than $1 million a year since. Unilever applauds UN Women on its website and in conferences for helping it achieve its goal “of empowering 5 million women workers by 2020” and protecting the rights and safety of female tea pluckers. Similarly, UN Women’s website, social media pages, brochures, and annual reports celebrate Unilever and its CEOs—first Polman and then Jope—for their moral leadership.

One project the two organizations teamed up for is a “safety manual” that draws on Unilever’s expertise to teach other companies to “ensure all women and girls are socially, economically, and politically empowered in rural spaces that are free from sexual harassment and other forms of violence.” None of the material hints at what Anne and the other people on Unilever’s Kenyan plantation endured.

In fact, the changes and improvements that UN Women and Unilever advocate don’t address the company’s corporate behavior at all; instead, they call on others to be better. Women are told to be more assertive and self-confident and are offered self-esteem workshops; traditional communities are educated to be less sexist; men get lessons in gender justice.

The picture of Unilever that emerges in UN Women’s brochures looks nothing like the corporation that Anne and others fought in court. UN Women portrays Unilever in the same way that the company’s PR and recruitment departments do—as a feminist-minded corporation that goes beyond its legal obligations to keep women safe.

A much tougher burden of proof fell on Anne and the other survivors when they had to prove their treatment by Unilever to the London court. Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was “confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.” Another senior manager stated that London’s “checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

While the safety protocols accurately identified the risk of ethnic violence, they failed to instruct managers on how to respond to such emergencies when they actually happened, according to the managers. This policy flaw explained why, in the words of one, “I was left to deal with the crisis on my own.”

This testimony seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed: “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.” It’s “dizzying,” she said, and “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

UN Women would not comment on Anne’s case. The group continues to uphold Unilever as a feminist champion and has even hired a former Unilever partnerships director for a senior position, in which she advises other multinational corporations on how to make their supply chains more feminist. In a recent webinar by UN Women and Amfori BSCI—a controversial trade group that counts corporate giants like Amazon among its members—she encouraged the BSCI members to approach women’s rights and safety as her former employer does: as a business opportunity that can benefit rather than hurt the bottom line. She assured them that by partnering with UN Women, the companies could pick priorities that match their growth objectives and then monitor their own progress. In presenting her case for UN Women partnerships, she remarked that the businesses should use these projects to attract young talent, many of whom “want to understand [they are] in a good company.”

A UN Women spokesperson explained that the webinar’s “business case” was based on research by McKinsey, Accenture, Bank of America, and the International Labor Organization.

Recently, feminist political economists like Genevieve LeBaron, Adrienne Roberts, and Sofie Tornhill have criticized corporate alliances of this kind, pointing out that they provide businesses with unearned PR while cheapening and distorting feminist ideals and principles. “The huge empowerment claims of these programs, and their overwhelmingly positive impact claims, sharply contrast with the extremely precarious and vulnerable positions that many of their supposed beneficiaries occupy and conceal their daily struggles,” said Tornhill, the author of The Business of Women’s Empowerment. “They can also undermine the impact of women’s rights groups who critique corporations and practice solidarity with women who have been exploited or otherwise abused by corporations. By elevating the voices of CEOs and their intentions, organizations like UN Women end up erasing the voices of women they claim to stand for.”

One such form of erasure was on display in 2019 during Business Fights Poverty, a Unilever-backed corporate responsibility conference held at the University of Oxford that attracted NGOs, UN staff, academics, and businesspeople. In an afternoon panel discussion about gender-based violence in supply chains, a manager from Unilever spoke at length about how the company helps prevent attacks on its tea plantations and supports female workers. Not once did she mention the mass rapes and killings of the company’s tea workers in Kenya.

To correct this incomplete picture for the audience, I asked the Unilever manager during the Q&A session if she could speak about the allegations made by the Kenyan workers. The manager explained that her legal department wouldn’t let her but allowed me to share my version with the audience. Yet when I did, the moderator—a senior economic adviser from CARE International, which receives funding from Unilever—cut me off and told me that this “was not related to our current conversation.” It was a telling statement, given that the topic of discussion was precisely violence against women on tea plantations.

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines. “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed in their efforts, she told me, “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

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