Unilever to make payments to Kenyan tea pickers over 2007 plantation attacks

Unilever is to make payments to 77 tea pickers who worked on one of its plantations in Kenya that was targeted during post-election violence in 2007.

The UK law firm Leigh Day, representing the workers, said the London-based consumer goods multinational had agreed to make voluntary, or ex-gratia, payments to former workers at its subsidiary Unilever Tea Kenya, who were attacked by armed assailants at its plantation in Kericho.

Unilever said that after an independent review it had identified people who missed out on financial support the company offered workers at the time.

Seven people were killed and more than 50 women were raped at the plantation when violence broke out across Kenya in December 2007 over allegations of electoral fraud. The attacks were along ethnic lines – the Kalenjin against smaller groups, including Kisii, who made up the bulk of the plantation workers.

The plantation was temporarily closed after the attacks. When it reopened, Unilever said it gave workers money, furniture, bedding and clothing to replace looted items. It also said it offered medical support and counselling. Workers who did not return were offered redundancy packages, the company said.

However, the workers maintain they were not adequately compensated. Those who returned said they received a sum worth about £80 each, equivalent to one month’s wages, which they said was not proportionate to what they had suffered.

Some of the tea workers have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One former female employee reportedly contracted HIV after being raped.

In 2015, Leigh Day filed a case on behalf of the victims in the UK, alleging that Unilever had failed to take adequate measures to protect them from the risk of harm. The case was dismissed.

Unilever has always denied responsibility for the violence and rejects allegations that it failed in a duty of care to employees or their families.

In 2020, 218 of the tea pickers filed a complaint with the UN, alleging that Unilever violated international human rights standards by not adequately assisting them. The complaint is ongoing.

In May, a UN working group on human rights and business wrote to Hein Schumacher, Unilever’s chief executive, expressing “deep concern” that victims “had not had access to justice and/or to an effective remedy”.

Alex Kemunto*, a former Unilever employee, claimed workers were “left to our own devices” when they returned in 2008.

During the 2007 attack, he recalled, armed gangs with machetes, wooden batons and other weapons drove workers out of their homes on the plantation. Fearing for his life, he fled into the estate’s tea bushes and hid for three days as attackers hunted workers with dogs, wounding, killing and dismembering them.

Kemunto, who has scars on his head from a machete attack, said he fell unconscious and later managed to escape and get to a hospital.

“[Unilever] has not taken responsibility – there has not even been an apology,” he said. “When we returned to work, it was business as usual.

“No one approached me to talk about the attacks or offer support. We were only warned not to say anything if we saw someone with something of ours [stolen during the attacks]. We even became afraid to talk about it.”

The claimants’ representatives said the new payments from Unilever sidestepped the workers’ grievances.

“We feel strongly that what happened to [the workers] was wrong,” said David Roberts, a lawyer with Leigh Day. “The manner in which Unilever has responded to their complaints is an injustice that needs to be dealt with.”

Unilever said it would not comment on the latest payments. It sold the Kericho plantation last year.

* Name has been changed to protect identity


Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Alamy - Tea picking in Kenya. Seven people were killed and at least 50 women raped at the Kericho plantation in violence after the disputed 2007 elections.