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What awaits Sri Lankan tea firm as it takes over James Finlay

James Finlays Tea Estate in Kericho County. [Julius Chepkwony, Standard]

The clamour for land rights by a section of residents of Bomet and Kericho counties, controversy over tea plucking machines, sex scandals and alleged poor working conditions are some of the issues that await the new owners of James Finlay Tea Company.

Sri Lankan firm Browns Investment PLC, which bought a stake in multinational tea firm James Finlays Kenya, is in the process of acquiring all parts of James Finlay except the Saosa tea extraction facility.

But the new owners of the tea estates spread across Bomet and Kericho counties will have to contend with protracted land issues between the multi-national tea companies and some residents of these counties.

The communities have been pushing the British government to address the alleged historical land injustices meted on them, especially members of the Talai community, through a May 1934 ordinance drafted by the British Colonial Attorney General, William Harringan, that saw them removed from their ancestral land.

The law, which was passed by the Legislative Council, followed Kericho colonial District Commissioner Douglas Brumage's recommendations for the removal of the entire Talai clan from their land in Kipsigis.

The colonial government consequently took over the farms estimated to be around 800,000 acres, straddling Kericho and Bomet counties.

Some of the world's most successful tea companies including Unilever, Williamsons, Finlays and Lipton, occupy the disputed land and have continued to use it to make huge profits.

The Talai Removal Ordinance is one of the archival documents some 115,000 members of the Kipsigis community have submitted to the European Court of Human Rights against the UK government as they seek justice for historical land injustices.

In the application filed on behalf of the victims by Rodney Dixon Queen Council (QC) and Joel Kimutai Bosek, the claimants are seeking mesne profits - the sums of money paid for the occupation of land to a person with the right of immediate occupation, where no permission has been given for that occupation.

Kericho former governor Paul Chepkwony, who initiated the process, put the figure of what the applicants will be demanding as mesne profits at Sh2 trillion.

But soon after James Finlay and the Sri Lankan company entered into a sale agreement, current Governor Eric Mutai made a deal with the sellers over the transfer of the company to its new investor.

After a meeting at the county headquarters with the top management of Finlays led by Managing Director Simeon Hutchinson and Corporate Affairs Director General, Counsel Ben Woolf, Mutai said they agreed on several issues, among them the allocation of 15 per cent share ownership to the local community.

To appease the community over land injustices, the parties agreed to implement a National Lands Commission ruling that tea estates be surveyed afresh and excess land reverted to the county government.

At the same time, area senator Aaron Cheruiyot has also lodged a petition in the Senate to have the Kipsigis given back land allegedly grabbed by the British government.

In the petition, Cheruiyot claims Unilever Tea Kenya (Brook Bond), James Finlay (African Highlands), George Williamson (Changoi and Lelsa), Sotik Tea, Sotik Highlands, Kaisugu Tea, Mau Tea, Koru, and Fort Tenan farms are some of the parcels grabbed from Kipsigis community.

Last month, representatives of large-scale tea producers appeared before the Senate Justice, Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee, chaired by Hillary Sigei (Bomet Senator), to answer to the claims.

And this week, Kipsigis community elders petitioned the county assembly of Kericho on grounds that they were never involved in the agreement between James Finlay, Browns and the county government.

"We want the county assembly to reconsider the decision made by the Governor and consult the community first before making any decisions on any matter concerning the multinational tea companies," said elders' council chairperson Paul Langat. The petition is pending at the assembly.

Another issue the Sri Lankan firm will have to contend with is the introduction of tea harvesting machines.

Kenya Planters and Agricultural Workers Union moved to court to challenge the use of the machines, arguing that a stand-alone machine replaces 100 workers, while one operated by two people does the work of 25 workers.

However, Court of Appeal judges Patrick Kiage, Kathurima M'inoti and Agnes Murgor upheld the decision of the High Court on an appeal by the union and dismissed the case, ruling there was no evidence of job loss.

A case filed by former and current James Finlays employees in Scotland over injuries suffered while working in the plantations in Kericho and Bomet will likely present Browns Investment Plc with another headache.

In the case, over 1,000 former and current employees have accused the management of subjecting them to harsh and exploitative working conditions, claiming they suffered musculoskeletal injuries.

The case is pending in Scotland where a judge is expected to rule on whether the case should be heard there or in Kenya.

The sale deal came hot on the heels of a sex-for-work scandal aired in March by BBC, where the report pointed to allegations of sexual exploitation of tea workers at James Finlay Kenya Limited and Ekaterra.

It revealed that more than 70 women in the two companies had been sexually abused. The National Assembly Committee Labour launched investigations into the alleged sexual abuse of tea workers following the expose but is yet to submit a report.

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