This story was supported by the Pulitzer Centre
Linda*, a former tea estate labourer in Malawi, had a typical rags-to-riches story, until it turned into a nightmare.
She and 35 other female workers from the tea growing districts of Mulanje and Thyolo in Southern Malawi went from earning less than K50 000 (US$50) a month to instant millionaires.
This was after the High Court in the United Kingdom, in 2019, awarded them an out-of-court settlement of 2.3 million British Pounds (approximately K2.3 billion at the time) in compensation for experiencing gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the line of duty in tea estates owned by Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd (EPM), an indirect subsidiary of a British firm, Camellia plc.
The women, whose identities were kept under wraps, were represented by a British law firm Leigh Day. But our undercover investigations led us to five of the 36 women whose rags-to-riches fairytale has, unfortunately, become their worst nightmare.
Linda remembers the horrific experience like it was yesterday. She was doing her job as usual, picking tea in one of EPM’s 11 tea estates in the Southern Region district of Mulanje, when her supervisor appeared from nowhere and raped her.
She recalls: “He would assign me to work in fields far from my colleagues. On this day, I was assigned to pick tea behind some grass heaps. I didn’t know his motive until the day he raped me.
“After the rape, he threatened to deal with me should I tell anyone about it. I continued to work, but it wasn’t easy.”
During the interview, the single mother of five and two other dependents, was sitting cozily on a grey sofa in her well-furnished spacious sitting room, a huge jump from her former grass-thatched house. It is surrounded by four other houses that she owns.
“The flashbacks of this incident took away my peace of mind. I continued to work because I needed the money to support my children. As I struggled with this incident, I realised I was pregnant for this rapist. It was the most difficult moment of my life,” says Linda, tears welling in her eyes.
Before she could recover from the trauma, her employers discovered she was pregnant and fired her.
“They said estate rules don’t allow pregnant women labourers to work. The incident happened in 2018 and my child was born in August 2019,” Linda says.
Another victim Chifundo*, in her early 30s, says her supervisor repeatedly made unwelcome sexual advances towards her when she worked as a hand weeder for another tea estate in Mulanje.
“Because I refused, I was assigned hard labour. I reported the matter to his seniors, but he continued his advances, and also verbally assaulted me. My husband was disappointed with these issues, but we both had no courage to take the matter further,” laments Chifundo, a mother of three whose husband also worked at the estate as a security guard.
Her husband quit his job after Chifundo was compensated.
Sex for Jobs
Jennifer*, 30, who also worked at the same estate as Chifundo, claims she was indecently assaulted by her supervisor in the line of duty.
“The head of division assigned us [labourers] to carry grass bundles for use in the nurseries. He told me to drop them somewhere. But before I could reach the place, he ordered me to stop and indecently touched me…. I shouted on top of my voice and he quickly left,” recalls the married mother of three.
Jennifer further narrates: “He went straight to my other supervisor to report that I wasn’t working, but this wasn’t true. He was just angry that he didn’t succeed to have sex with me. The other supervisor later shouted at me and told me that he will record me absent for that day.
“He wasn’t the only one making sexual advances towards me. Another supervisor also did the same. I refused.”
When she returned to work the next day, Jennifer was assigned to manually cultivate on hard ground and did such work for three years.
Says Jennifer: “I had no other option but to remain silent because I needed the job. My husband worked as a gate guard at another estate and his income wasn’t enough to sustain our needs.”
The five women we spoke to said while they refused the sexual advances, others accepted to have relations or convenient sex with supervisors or those in positions of influence to be assigned less strenuous work such as making tea or cleaning offices.
“You should understand that these are temporary jobs and as women, we usually want to be re-employed after the contract expires,” says Jennifer, whose contract was not renewed after it expired.
The women believe that most women don’t get employment at the estates for free, adding they have evidence of women who have had a sexual relationship or a once-off sexual encounter with supervisors to get employment.
Linda and the four other women say they felt a sense of relief when ‘agents’ of Leigh Day approached them individually to present their cases in the UK High Court.
She claims that at least 80 women were initially ready to fight for justice, but that some dropped off along the way for fear of losing their jobs or marriages.
“When the court outcome was announced, we had meetings for five days at a lodge where we were taught financial management skills,” says Linda.
The women we have spoken to say they received compensations ranging from MK5 million (US$5,000) to MK30 million (US$30,000) each.
We can reveal that although the women know each other, they were strongly advised against disclosing the compensation amounts to each other.
Our visit established that the women’s lives have since drastically changed for the better, attracting lots of public attention in their communities. All the five women we spoke to say they have been subjected to verbal abuse, torture and have left their villages after being branded ‘Satanic’.
Linda, 38, was compensated with close to MK30 million (approximately US$30,000) which she invested in eight houses at a trading centre in Mulanje, built another house in her village and a church in her home village.
“People knew me as a mere tea picker. They don’t know my story…we were told not to disclose anything. So, they noticed my sudden lifestyle change and the investments I have made and they now call me satanic.
“Unfortunately, the payout came the same time I lost my nephew. So, they concluded that I used him a sacrifice to Satan to gain riches. Life has been hard, that’s why I decided to leave my home village to stay in one of my houses, here at the trading centre.
But the relocation only brought temporary relief.
“People traced me and they’ve been coming to me asking for my help in leading them to Satanism so they too may become rich. I felt sorry for myself the other day, when someone came to ask for my help in offering her two sons as sacrifices because they are troublesome…” says Linda.
Linda has since taken to alcohol to cope with the stress, forcing the church she helped build to excommunicate her.
Chifundo and Jennifer are in a similar predicament. They, too, left their home villages because everyone questioned their newly-found riches and concluded they were Satanic.
In poor communities in Malawi, people who are rich are thought to have offered human sacrifices to Satan using magic and are often ostracised for fear that they might offer more people up in order to attain even more riches.
Says Chifundo: “I had to leave because the chief somehow got wind of the fact that I was probably one of the women who had been compensated. Because he was frustrated that we didn’t share the money, he spearheaded speculation.
“He said he wanted his own share of the money because we are his subjects. We haven’t had peace, the only consolation is that we know deep down that this is clean money not Satanic money.”
She no longer trusts strangers, and was uncomfortable with the idea of meeting us for the interview in her new home; and had to be constantly reassured that we meant no harm.
Chifundo got a K15 million (US$15,000) payout which, she says, has since run out and she would want to be employed again.
Some of the women, we learnt, have migrated to South Africa to escape the stress, while a few others had not even touched their money.
A mental health expert and PhD fellow at the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences, Chitsanzo Mafuta, says although it would be difficult to conclude without research and clinical evidence on the 36 women, instant financial stability can be a stress trigger.
He observes: “These women’s responses will depend on a number of factors including: genetics, early life events, personality and social and economic circumstances.
“Research and clinical evidence indicate that harassment is associated with increased risk of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as diminished self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological well-being. If these women experienced these issues and have been unresolved, it is postulated that their response to the positive financial status would likely be faulty.”
Besides the ‘satanic’ allegations, the women have also gone through further abuse by some of the ‘agents’ engaged to identify them for the process of compensation, financial management mentorship and act as a link with the UK team, they alleged.
Prior to receiving compensation, the women underwent a financial management training where the said ‘agents’ in Malawi were in attendance. Despite being advised not to reveal their compensation amounts to each other because of the confidentiality clause in the out-of-court settlement, the women allege that one of the ‘agents’ a Mr. Godfrey, got money from some of the compensated women.
“He came to me by car and told me to go with him to the bank to withdraw money for him. I gave him K600 000. I’m told he did the same to some of my other colleagues,” Linda claims.
She says the same person took money from another colleague after tricking her he would help in building her house.
“He had her Automated Teller Machine [ATM] card and he had authority over her money. The house was never completed and he disappeared,” claims Linda.
In an email response, Head of Media Relations at Leigh Day Caroline Ivison said the law firm is aware of allegations of money being taken from their clients by individuals, saying it is now subject to an ongoing investigation by the police.
The law firm also denies having subcontracted anyone to help in ensuring the women received their compensation.
“Our clients received their compensation directly from Leigh Day, with no deductions from the firm,” she said.
Following the EPM case, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) reported Malawi to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), alleging widespread gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the tea sector.
But Malawi’s Ministry of Labour, government regulator of labour issues and Tea Association of Malawi Limited (TAML), an organisation that represents the country’s tea industry on matters of trade and policy have all denied the allegations.
Minister of Labour, Vera Kamtukule says government has no knowledge of the claims.
She says: “I personally went to Geneva to answer this case which the government knew nothing about. I told the ILO that as a government we are just hearing this issue from the grapevine and we have no details. Malawi is not guilty of these allegations.
“The issue of Malawian women being compensated through a United Kingdom Court is even confusing because we don’t know these women and as the government, nobody gave us a report on this issue. How will the abuse end if everything is done in secret and hidden from us who are supposed to help.”
The minister fears the women could have been duped of their payout considering their vulnerability and socio-economic status, but that would be hard to prove and determine because the issue has been kept under wraps.
Kamtukule claims that although sexual harassment issues are alleged to be rampant in Thyolo and Mulanje districts, police in the districts have no such reports.
Both Mulanje and Thyolo Police stations say they do not have specific records of gender-based violence or sexual harassment from tea estate’ employees.
“The reason coukd be because these estate companies have internal committees handling such cases,” said Mulanje Police spokesperson, Gresham Ngwira.
Just like the Minister of Labour, TAML chairperson Sangwani Hara says he was not aware of the sexual harassment and compensation issues, but received no official communication for the association’s action.
“Government is keen to follow up on this issue because these women need psychosocial support. Keeping this case under the wraps has put us in a very difficult situation. We can’t respond to things we don’t even know about,” he said.
Hara added they are concerned with the UK cases, wondering why, if they involve Malawian women, the cases not heard locally.
“Our courts have been given internationally recognised award-winning judgements and our judicial system is capable of handling these cases. Why were they heard in the UK? And why are these people not working with us on the ground?” he asked.
But in response, Ivison said the law firm strongly refutes the allegation that they took any of their clients’ money.
“All our clients were paid 100 percent of their compensation. No money was deducted from our clients’ compensation for Leigh Day’s legal fees. We take any suggestion to the contrary with the utmost seriousness,” she says.
The law firm, however, could not provide a breakdown of how the compensation money was distributed because the settlement was a confidential agreement between the women and the defendants.
Further, Leigh Day refused to explain whether they have, at any point, worked with the Ministry of Labour or Tea Association of Malawi on this matter.
“We cannot comment on what the Ministry of Labour or Tea Association know or do not know about sexual harassment in the tea estates,” Ivision said in a written response, adding this does not prohibit the women from reporting any intimidation or criminal behaviour to the police.
Addressing Sexual Harassment in Tea Estates
According to TAML, the ssociation’s stakeholders developed a sexual harassment policy in 2017.
“This is reviewed every year through a gap analysis with a number of stakeholders. We also have grievance handling mechanisms within this policy where a number of abuse allegations have been handled and actions taken,” said Hara.
He claimed that all women working in the tea sector have high levels of sexual harassment awareness through the various workshops the association conducts.
The ground-breaking settlement of claims included; compensation for the claimants and the establishment of a number of measures designed to improve the safety and security of EPM’s female employees and improve conditions for women in the wider community.
These measures include a Women’s Empowerment Initiative to fund projects to improve the skills, employment opportunities, and educational attainment of women and girls in and around EPM’s operations, providing benefits both to the claimants and the wider community.
EPM’s Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Robert Kachilele says the company has published its first Independent Monitors report outlining its interventions to mitigate sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
He said: “EPM is also working with a number of national and international stakeholders including ministries of Gender, Labour and a number of flagship NGOs in the country.
“We also have contracted international experts on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to assist us to develop an Operational Grievance Mechanism [OGM]. Our OGM which in Chichewa is named ‘Tikumveni’ [we listen], is designed to address any grievances in a sensitive, confidential and effective manner.”
However, the compensated women claim they are yet to benefit from EPM’s interventions.
According to Leigh Day, EPM’s actions are monitored by Triple R Alliance, an independent expert organisation that monitors, guides and oversees Camellia’s commitments under the settlement agreement.
“Our extensive work with EPM covers many different work streams and engages many different stakeholders. As part of this process, EPM will continue to make public key reports which detail key interventions being made,” said Luz Zandvliet, Triple R’s Director, in an email response.
Last year, Lujeri Tea Estate in Mulanje and its UK headquartered parent company, multinational PGI, were served with a claim issued in the High Court in London for failure to protect women employees from rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination by male workers.
The claims, which are yet to be proven before the court, lists 22 instances of sexual harassment, 13 of sexual assault, 11 of coerced sexual relations and 10 rape instances. Half of the claimants were working in the macadamia orchards when their mistreatment happened.
We also met more women who claim they were sexually harassed but could not seek Leigh Day’s support as part of the out-of-court settlement was on condition that no other cases are brought before a UK court.
Keen Human Rights Commission
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent national human rights institution established by the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi to protect and investigate violations of the rights accorded by the Constitution or any other law, says it is aware of the alleged sexual harassment in Malawi’s tea and macadamia sectors.
However, MHRC’s Public Relations Officer Kate Kujaliwa, however, said the commission has not received any complaints from that sector.
“But we are alive to the alleged sexual harassment issues there. It is an area the Commission is working on this year. Retaliation for reporting sexual harassment is against the tenets of human rights, particularly in such sensitive cases,” she said.
Kujaliwa said the MHRC’s experience has so far shown that most workplaces have underlying cases of sexual harassment.
“Even though it is not a new phenomenon, people, including victims have recently become more empowered to report or speak against sexual harassment. The stigma associated with sexual harassment and reporting such acts remains a challenge,” said the spokesperson.
Kujaliwa observes that sexual harassment policies should have provisions prohibiting retaliatory acts and measures to deal with retaliatory acts.
“Victims should also know that Malawi’s Gender Equality Act provides that a person does not have to exhaust internal mechanisms but can institute criminal or civil proceedings against their perpetrator,” she explains, adding there is still need for more awareness.
The tea sector is the second-largest employer in Malawi, with over 60,000 workers at peak season, 40 percent of whom are women.
EPM has 15 estates; four in Thyolo and the rest in Mulanje.
*Real names withheld