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Four long-standing disputes awaiting Sri Lankan tea firm as it buys James Finlays

Rift Valley
  Kericho Governor Erick Mutai addresses the press at the county headquarters on May 5, 2023, after meeting officials of James Finlays and Browns Investments PLC. [Julius Chepkwony, Standard]

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

Sri Lankan firm, Browns Investment Plc, has bought an undisclosed stake in multinational tea firm James Finlays Kenya.

Browns Investments PLC 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 the protracted land issues between the multi-national tea companies and some residents of these counties.

For decades now, 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 swiftly passed by the Legislative Council, followed Kericho colonial District Commissioner Douglas Brumage's recommendations that saw the removal of the entire Talai clan from their land 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, Williamson Tea, Finlay’s, and Lipton, occupy the land in question and have continued to use it to make considerable profits.

The Talai Removal Ordinance is one of the archival documents the clan and 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 the 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's 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 Lankans entered into the 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 James Finflay Kenya Ltd Simeon Hutchinson and Group Cooperate Affairs Director James Finlay Ltd Ben Woolf, Mutai said they agreed on several issues among them, the allocation of 15 per cent of ownership shares to the local community.

It was also mutually agreed that the Sri Lankans would retain all the current employees.

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


A tea plucking machine at James Finlays Tea Estate in Kericho County. [File, Standard]

"I am glad to announce we have held a fruitful engagement with the top management of Finlays and hope we will have good working relations with the new investor. My commitment to putting the interests of the people of Kericho first is unwavering," Mutai said.

Other issues that were agreed upon are constituting a joint working group, comprising the county executive, legislature, and Brown Investment PLC, to oversee the transfer of ownership of Finlay.

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 Kenya (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 the 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 defend themselves over the claims.

Another issue the Sri Lankan firm will have to contend with as they take over at James Finlay Tea Company, is the introduction of tea harvesting machines. Use of the machines has been opposed since their introduction in early 2000 as they have taken away many jobs.

Interviews by tea farms then revealed that they were saving up to Sh10 per kilo by using the machines.

Initially, they claimed in a report by the Tea Board of Kenya that the estates were spending an average of Sh5 in plucking costs since the introduction of the machines.

Use of tea plucking machines has been controversial with workers' unions opposed to them arguing they would render people jobless.

Kenya Planters and Agricultural Workers Union moved to court to challenge the use of the machines arguing a stand-alone machine replaces 100 workers while one operated by two people does the work of 25 workers, making this a hot issue for the incoming management of James Finlays.

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, ruling there was no evidence of job loss.

The judges noted that even if the adoption of technology was going to result in redundancy, there was a prescribed procedure to protect the rights of the workers, which could easily have been invoked.

But the union demanded that Uniliver Kenya Tea Limited withdraw its tea harvesting machines. Unilever, however, returned to court seeking protection of its rights to mechanize and adopt technology in its operations.

Justice James Aaron Makau, in his judgment on January 28, 2021, said the company has a right to mechanize and adopt technology in its operations.

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.

The tea pickers claim they suffered musculoskeletal injuries that affect the bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, or tendons.

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 work for sex scandal aired in March, this year by BBC, in an investigative documentary.

The report pointed to allegations of sexual exploitation of tea workers at James Finlay Kenya Limited and Ekaterra (formerly Unilever Kenya).

It revealed that more than 70 women in the two companies had been abused sexually.

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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