The High Court in the United Kingdom awarded 36 female tea-estate workers K2.3 billion as compensation for the sexual abuse they faced in the course of their duty. In this last instalment of the story supported by the Pulitzer Centre, our contributors CHISOMO NGULUBE and JOSEPHINE CHINELE dig into the issue further:
Following the Eastern Produce Malawi (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 the Ministry of Labour and the Tea Association of Malawi Limited (TAML), an organisation that represents the country’s tea industry on matters of trade and policy have 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 we knew nothing about. I told the ILO that as a government we are just hearing this issue from the grapevine. Malawi is not guilty.
“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?”
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 could be that these estate companies have internal committees handling such cases,” said Mulanje Police spokesperson, Gresham Ngwira.
TAML chairperson Sangwani Hara says he was not aware of the sexual harassment and compensation issues and that they received no official communication for the association’s action.
“Government is keen to follow up on this issue because these women need psycho-social support. Keeping this case under wraps has put us in a very difficult situation. We can’t respond to things we don’t know,” he said.
Hara added they are concerned with the UK cases, wondering why, if they involve Malawian women, the cases was 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 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 association’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 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 gende and labour, and some NGOs.
“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, 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 some 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
The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) says it is aware of the alleged sexual harassment in Malawi’s tea and macadamia sectors.
However, MHRC 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.
The tea sector is the second-largest employer in Malawi, with over 60 000 workers at peak season, 40 percent of whom are women.