Prolonged bending to gather tea for James Finlay Kenya is argued to accelerate ageing of pickers’ backs by up to 20 years
More than a 1,000 Kenyan tea pickers who say that harsh and exploitative working conditions on a Scottish-run tea farm have caused them crippling health complaints can now pursue their class action in an Edinburgh court.
Lawyers acting for the tea pickers have won an order from the court of session, Scotland’s highest civil court, telling James Finlay Kenya Ltd (JFK) to abandon attempts to block the suit through the Kenyan courts.
The judge, Lord Braid, condemned the company’s “vexatious and oppressive” practices in trying to derail the claim.
Finlays, an Aberdeen-registered multinational whose estates in Kericho, Kenya, stretch across 10,117 hectares (25,000 acres), is one of the largest suppliers of tea and coffee in the world and includes high street outlets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Starbucks among its customers.
The company has defended its health and safety record, and carries the Fairtrade mark on its products, as well as certifications from the Soil Association and the Rainforest Alliance. On its company website Finlays describes its Kenyan estates as “a thriving community of thousands of employees and outgrowers and their families who live, work and study there”.
But in previous testimony, workers claimed that oppressive working conditions caused them significant and permanent musculoskeletal damage. They said they had to work up to 12 hours a day in a six-day week, carry up to 26lb of the tea leaf pickings on their back over rough slopes, and in some cases meet a weight target of 66lb of tea a day or not get paid.
This work, as well as the prolonged bending, twisting and reaching required to gather tea leaves, is argued to have accelerated the ageing of pickers’ backs by as much as 20 years.
JFK originally tried to stop the suit going ahead in Scotland and more recently pursued blocking action in Kenya, arguing that the Scottish claim was an assault on Kenyan sovereignty. But the workers’ lawyers argued that JFK had engaged in a “deliberate campaign to defeat the ends of justice and cause distress”.
The lawyer for the pickers, Patrick McGuire of Thompsons, said the claim was based around a combination of “oppressive” working conditions and a pay model often based around impossible picking targets. Underlining the importance of pursuing the case in Scotland, he added: “These workers will have no ability to seek justice or pursue compensation in Kenyan courts. There are no group proceedings or legal aid there, and lawyers are unable to offer no win, no fee arrangements.”
He said he hoped the landmark proceedings would have an impact on the industry more broadly: “This is about shining a light on what happens on these farms. Every company that operates in this area needs to have a long hard look at its practices.”
JFK has been approached for comment.
The company’s argument that Scottish courts do not have jurisdiction over Kenyan work injury claims will be heard at the court of session at a later date.