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Kenyan Unilever tea workers escalate fight for reparations to U.N.

Thu, 30th Jul 2020 19:00

By Emma Batha

LONDON, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of
Kenyan tea plantation workers who say Unilever failed to protect
them from ethnic violence have escalated their battle for
reparations to the United Nations.

The 218 victims include the families of seven workers who
were killed and 56 who say they were raped when armed men
invaded the multinational's plantation near the western town of
Kericho during post-election turmoil in 2007-2008.

"There are heartbreaking stories," lawyer Daniel Leader of
international law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the
workers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"There are many individuals who have suffered such severe
physical harm by being attacked with machetes and clubs that
they're unable to work."

Unilever, which buys 10% of the world's tea supply and owns
major brands such as Lipton, PG Tips and Brooke Bond, did not
immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Anglo-Dutch multinational has previously said the scale
of the post-election violence, which killed an estimated 1,200
nationwide, was not foreseeable.

From fashion to food, major businesses are coming under
increasing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure that their
global supply chains treat their workers fairly.

The complaint has been made to the United Nations Working
Group on Business and Human Rights and the U.N. Special
Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

It is not asking the U.N. to consider whether Unilever
failed to protect the residents of its plantation but whether it
breached its responsibility under U.N. principles on business
and human rights to provide a remedy for the harm they suffered.

SITTING DUCKS

The victims said threats of violence were spoken about
openly on the plantation and reported to management but not
acted upon, placing them at significant risk of attack.

By contrast, they said steps were taken to protect managers
and expatriates.

The tea pickers, most of them from ethnic groups that were
not indigenous to the area, were "sitting ducks" when the
violence erupted, Leader said.

Some of the women contracted HIV after being raped, while
other survivors were destitute, he added.

Unilever failed to provide assistance after the violence and
stopped their wages for six months, exacerbating their
suffering, victims said.

The victims lodged an unsuccessful civil claim for damages
against Unilever in England in 2016.

The company argued that it could not be held responsible for
any alleged failings of its Kenyan subsidiary.

But the victims say Unilever has tried to hide behind its
corporate structure to block any prospect of a remedy.

Leader said he hoped Unilever would meet the victims and
agree to medical and psychiatric assessments in order to arrange
a welfare scheme, adding that the sum involved would be "small
change" for the multinational.

He said the U.N. working group could issue a declaration on
whether Unilever's behaviour met international standards and
submit a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council highlighting
any breaches committed.

Although Unilever cannot be forced to take action, Leader
said public condemnation by the world's leading body on business
and human rights would be a big blow to a company that promotes
itself as one of the world's most ethical.

"It's potentially very damaging reputationally to Unilever
if they continue to stonewall these victims," he added.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Katy Migiro.
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm
of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the
world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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