Hundreds of workers caught up in a deadly attack on a Unilever tea plantation in Kenya have escalated their battle for reparations against the company with the United Nations, alleging the British-Dutch firm failed to act on warnings of violence.
The 218 complainants, who include the families of seven employees killed and 56 female staff who were raped during the December 2007 ethnic violence at the western town of Kericho during post-election turmoil in 2007-2008, also claim Unilever have failed to provide adequate support for the victims.
The multinational, which owns tea brands PG Tips, Liptons, T2 and Tazo, is accused of “hiding behind its vast corporate structure” to shield itself from liability in legal action.
“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 multinational firm has previously said the scale of the post-election violence, which killed an estimated 1,200 nationwide, was not foreseeable.
The complaint has been made to the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
It is not asking the UN to consider whether Unilever failed to protect the residents of its plantation but whether it breached its responsibility under UN principles on business and human rights to provide a remedy for the harm they suffered.
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.
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 UN working group could issue a declaration on whether Unilever’s behaviour met international standards and submit a report to the UN 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. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)