TWO UK-BASED CONGLOMERATES EXPLOIT TEA AND MACADAMIA ESTATES WORKERS IN MALAWI

… British law firm gets K2.3 billion compensation for 36 abused women

BY MILIMO CHITSULO

In February last year, a UK-based legal firm, Leigh Day, settled claims against a tea-growing company in Malawi arising out of rape and other forms of gender-based violence on Malawian tea estates.

Right around this time, the Platform for Investigative Journalism started its own investigations to establish what was actually happening to establish if indeed what transpired in the UK courts is indeed what is happening in these estates.

Workers in tea and macadamia nut estates in Malawi’s Southern districts of Mulanje and Thyolo, face rampant sexual and labour exploitation at the hands of managers and supervisors, PIJ has established.

The legal firm, Leigh Day published on its website that it represented 36 Malawian women who alleged that they had experienced gender-based violence, including, in some cases, rape and sexual harassment during the course of their work on tea estates in the Mulanje and Thyolo districts of Malawi, while employed by Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd “EPM”, which is an indirect subsidiary of Camellia plc.

These claims were issued in the High Court in London on 31 October 2019 against Camellia Plc, Linton Park Plc, Robertson Bois Dickson Anderson Limited, together with “the English Defendants” and EPM. Leigh Day can confirm that they agreed on the settlement of all claims against EPM and the English Defendants brought by these women of 2.3 million British Pounds (MK2.3 billion).

PIJ investigations have established that the company’s archaic and shocking recruitment processes and conditions of services are appallingly used to bait, exploit and abuse the poor job-seeking workers in this part of southern Malawi tea and macadamia estates.

Two UK-based conglomerates, PGI Group Ltd and Camellia Group Ltd, which are quoted on the AIM Market of the London Stock Exchange, proudly own these tea and macadamia nut estates in the mountainous parts of the two districts that border with Mozambique.

The tea and macadamia company, Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM) Ltd in Malawi owns a horde of close to 20 tea and macadamia nut estates. EPM Ltd owns tea and macadamia nuts estates such as Limbuli, Chisambo, Phwazi, Ruo, Thornwood, Eldarado, Likanga, Minimini, Lauderdale, Esperanza, Glenorchy, Kasembereka, Mianga, Gotha, Makwasa, Nasonia, Kumadzi, and Masawa.

One of the partner owners of EPM, Camellia Group Limited, boasts revenue in excess of 300 million pounds (over K337 billion) per annum and operates in over 11 countries across the world including Malawi.  The company employs over 78,000 people across the globe and operates in Agriculture, Food Service, Engineering, and Investment sectors.

There is also Eastern Produce Kenya Ltd (EPK) which is one of the biggest multinational producers of tea in Kenya, with numerous tea estates centred in the Nandi Hills area, west of the Great Rift Valley as well as Eastern Produce South Africa which has three Macadamia plantations: Maclands Estate and Mambedi River Estate located in the Limpopo Province.

The other company, PGI Group Ltd, boasts 572.1 million dollars (K456 billion) annual revenue and employs over 2,100 people in both Malawi and Zimbabwe combined. The PGI Group operates in Agribusiness and Renewable Energy sectors and owns Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd and Thyolo Nuts Company Ltd.

The company also owns Eastern Highlands Plantations Ltd and Nyangani Renewable Energy (Pvt) Ltd in Zimbabwe. Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd alone owns five tea estates of Lujeri and Nchima Macadamia Nuts Estate, namely Bloomfield Tea Estate, Nsuwadzi Tea Estate, Sayama Tea Estate, Khongoloni Tea Estate, and Nchima Macadamia Nuts Estate.

The kind of annual revenues the two conglomerates boast of speak volumes of how lucrative the tea and macadamia nuts industries are, which is in great contrast to appalling conditions suffered by their workers.

Both tea and macadamia nuts prices have increased over the years, globally. Tea prices, for example, reach a minimum of US$3.50 (K2, 800) per 1 kg at the local Limbe Tea Auction Floors in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre.

Smallholder Farmers & Female Workers Ordeal

The two firms have operated in Malawi for over 131 years perpetuating the miserable experiences of the workers in their estates.

For instance, smallholder farmers who sell their tea to EPM Ltd and Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd sell at MK121.00 (US$0.16) per kilogramme yet the companies sell the processed tea for up to US$3.50 dollars at Limbe Auction Floors.

PIJ investigations into the abuses in these estates reveal that some female workers face sexual harassment at the hands of male managers and supervisors. PIJ talked to female workers at Limbuli, Chisambo, Phwazi, Ruo, Minimini, Lujeri, Bloomfield, Nsuwadzi, Sayama, Mianga, Kasembereka, Nchima, and Gotha estates.

Besides the responses that PIJ got from some Managers from EPM, the company referred PIJ to its communication consultant Warthogs Inc, which works as EPM’s advisory firm.

Warthogs’ owner and thought leader Dumisani Ngulube says EPM has an Operational-level Grievance Mechanism (“OGM”), compliant with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, for addressing sexual harassment claims under the direction of a Malawian female Independent Senior lawyer.

He claims that the OGM is already having a positive impact in and around the estates.

He also threatened that a ‘very unfounded and malicious claim’ is that the Human Resources department for EPM Ltd has ignored evidence provided by the women workers victimised by their male bosses.

Naming Bosses that Demand Sex

According to one of the female workers at Nchima Macadamia Nuts Estate in Thyolo [owned by PGI] who sought anonymity, as her issue is in court, some male managers and supervisors ask for both money and sex from them in exchange for work at the estate, contracts renewal as well as promotion.

The other women who also spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of prejudicing a case that was in court in the UK said one of the managers, Felix Bennett, has been asking for sex from them.

Bennett was a Manager at Nchima Estate and has since been dismissed by Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd and Thyolo Nuts Ltd managements.

When PIJ talked to Bennett on his dismissal and the sexual harassment allegations, he only responded with insults.

Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd and Thyolo Nuts Ltd managements have also fired a number of managers such as Henderson Kaputeni, Tea Manager for Lujeri Tea Estate; Felix Chagunda, Manager for Chikuli Division; Lawrent Mwafilaso, Manager for Mikukuni Division at Nsuwadzi Tea Estate; Laston Nyamula, Manager for Masikini Division at Nchima Macadamia Nuts Estate and several other supervisors over sexual harassment and or exploitive demand for money from workers in exchange of job opportunities and promotions.

The fired Managers confirmed that Lujeri management fired them over unsubstantiated allegations and have since decided to seek legal redress for unfair dismissal because the management has no witness to attest to its claims.

Sexual Abuses by Managers

At Limbuli Tea Estate, three managers and a supervisor forced female workers to have sex with them in order to have their jobs secured.

The five women PIJ talked to, narrated their ordeals with the General Manager, Richard Jumbe, the Factory Manager, George Kathumba, the Division 1 Fields Manager, Matthews Thugo, and a Supervisor for one of the departments in the factory, Rex Nakhawa.

One of the female workers, Josophine Tobias narrated that her Supervisor, Rex Nakhawa, has been proposing love to her to which she has been turning down.

She explained: “Nakhawa who was my supervisor told me he wanted the two of us to be lovers. I rebuffed him. He kept harassing me. I reported him to George Kathumba, the Production Manager. He was not summoned for any disciplinary hearing and I didn’t hear anything from Kathumba.”

Tobias explained that EPM hires its workers on a contractual and seasonal basis. It doesn’t employ people on a permanent basis. This is to say, every tea season, people from different villages around the estates come to seek employment and it is during this time that managers and supervisors take advantage of job seekers’ desperation to propose love, or ask for sex from women.

She says some women give in to the managers’ and supervisors’ demands in fear of getting back home unemployed.

Kathumba confirmed Tobias’s case and explained to PIJ that the issue was reported to EPM Legal Advisor who is now investigating the manager.

“Tobias reported Nakhawa to my office and Limbuli Estate management has reported the issue to EPM Legal Advisor to seek for the direction to be taken on the issue from the advisor,” Kathumba said.

Another sexual harassment case involves Cecilia Charles who works in the sorting department of Limbuli Tea Estate Factory. Her manager, Kathumba has been making passes at her, and ever since she declined, Kathumba has been trying to frustrate her. He subjects her to various abuses like shouting at her for no reason. He also made sure her contract was not renewed.

She narrated: “He had been promising to promote me to a supervisor position in the tea testing room if I accept his love proposal. I said no, for I am a married woman. He had been changing my working shifts just to frustrate me.”

Charles says her husband, Renneck Buledi, who works as a clerk at the same estate, advised her to report the matter to the Head Office but to her surprise, Kathumba was not summoned for any disciplinary hearing.

When her contract came to an end, her boss told her never to expect any renewal for she is rude.

Charles took up the matter with Human Resources Manager, Gideon Mothisa to complain about Kathumba’s refusal to have her contract renewed. This was in spite of the fact that the Human Resource Manager did not assist her in the first time she went to complain about the sexual harassment.

She was directed to the office secretary of the General Manager for Limbuli, Chisambo, and Phwazi Tea Estates Richard Jumbe.

“I was told to start working again although Kathumba continues to be troubling me for he feels I wanted to have him fired from work,’’ explained Charles.

Instead, her husband was the one who got fired for encouraging her to report the matter to the Human Resources Manager.

Buledi confirmed his ordeal, explaining that when he had encouraged his wife to report the sexual harassment, which led to his dismissal, efforts to appeal against it changed nothing.

When he gave up and got hired at Ruo Tea Estate as a Clerk, Kathumba went to his new bosses and convinced them to fire him again for incompetency.

“The only crime I committed was telling my wife to report a vice,’’ the worried Buledi narrated.

On his part, Kathumba said Charles was being used by Jumbe and his Secretary, Patricia Saiti, to put him into trouble.

Kathumba defended himself saying he was surprised when Charles reported him to top management for sexual harassment when he had only offered her a lift after knocking off.

“I didn’t propose love to her. She is being used to tarnish my image by the General Manager, Richard Jumbe, and his Secretary, Patricia Saiti. The two want me fired from work and they are using female workers,” claimed Kathumba.

Ngulube said ‘neither the office of the Group Human Resources Manager nor Mr. Mothisa personally was made aware of this issue.

Another worker, Mirriam Mbendera who was the Data Entry Clerk for Phwazi Tea Estate but, but was based at Limbuli Tea Estate claims to have been fired by Jumbe, the Manager, who was allegedly also interested in her. She did not give in to his advances.

“The time I was the Data Entry Clerk, I was being ill-treated by Jumbe and Kathumba,” she narrates. “Kathumba told me in my face that he was interested in me to which I said I can’t do that for I have a husband. He said my husband is useless for he is a mere driver who can’t take care of me properly.”

She said Kathumba also told her that even Jumbe was interested in her and both managers were not happy with her.

“Kathumba promised to protect me from any ills from his fellow manager, Jumbe if I accepted his love proposal. I also said no.”

‘’Richard Jumbe was following me even outside work. I remember this other day he had my photo taken using his phone when I was in a shop at Limbuli Trading Centre on Sunday. He showed it to my immediate boss, Peter Gobede, who was an Accountant for the estate then. I was puzzled as to why I was being followed by Jumbe like that? To me, that was beyond work life. That was invading my privacy,” she narrated.

She was eventually dismissed from work on grounds that did not make sense to anyone at the office.

“Kathumba mocked me. He said no manager would be on my side even when the grounds on which I was fired were not valid because I refused to be sleeping with him. I was encouraged to seek legal redress but, I just went back home where I am now just staying,’’ bemoaned Mbendera.

Linley Kabichi who was also working in the Limbuli Tea Estate factory in 2018 where Kathumba was the Factory Manager also complains that he proposed love to her by promising her a promotion to a supervisor post if she accepted.

When she declined, the manager refused to renew her contract in retaliation and witch-hunting crept in, thereafter.

Said Kabichi: “I was first taken on board, but then Kathumba told me to go back as he claimed I don’t respect him. I went back home. That was my end for working with the estate.’’

To these allegations, Kathumba said it is the same Jumbe and his Secretary who were behind it:

He claims that it is these two who fired Mbendera from work.

He claims that Mirriam and her friend, Patricia Mwanyungwa who was the Cashier, were dismissed from work for no reason.

Kathumba says Jumbe forced the then Group Manager for Limbuli Tea Estate, Fundi, now at Lauderdale Tea Estate to fire the two female workers because they could not surrender to his sexual advances.

For over four months now, Jumbe has refused to respond to our questionnaire. Contacting him through WhatsApp has also not brought any results. He read the messages before he blocked us.

Another female worker Rose Sikelo says for 8 years, she has worked with Limbuli Tea Estate as one of those that prepare tea for the workers, she has been suffering from sexual advances from the Field Manager Matthews Thugo.

She said she declined and told him she is married but he could hear none of it. He got her mobile phone number from her colleague and called her at night when she was in bed with her husband.

“My husband was mad at me. He took the phone and up to now, it is still with him. He told me not to go to work again. I am home now.’’

In his response to the allegations, Thugo refuted the claims by Sikelo.

‘’I am sorry it’s news to me. I don’t know anything. I don’t know Rose Sikelo and she has never worked under my division,” Thugo said.

When PIJ asked one of the managers to search for the name Rose Sikelo in the estate’s database, it was established that indeed Sikelo once worked with the estate for over 8 years and that she was reporting to Thugo.

Encouraging Women Workers to open up

A Manager at Lujeri Tea Estate who refused to be named in fear of being dismissed told us the estate is now encouraging women to speak out on sexual harassment. But he said that the lack of a clear policy on sexual harassment in the estates frustrates the efforts.

He said both Lujeri Tea Estate Ltd and EPM Ltd have been sleeping on the matter and issues of sexual harassment have escalated as a result.

He says the issue has been overlooked by management of the two companies for many years the more reason they felt like they were both ambushed when suddenly they were dragged into a United Kingdom (UK) court by some women who faced sexual harassment in the estates. The senior management personnel said the UK case will cost the companies a lot of money.

He said since there is no clear policy on sexual harassment for the two companies the female workers feel helpless and do not know where to go with such cases.

“The same managers at the centre of perpetrating the malpractice are the ones in control of the committee aimed to combat the vice. That can create a room for shielding the perpetrators because they are friends with the members of the committee,” he said.

Asked what EPM Ltd is doing about some women who got fired after resisting sexual harassment and intimidation at the hands of Managers and Supervisors, Ngulube explained that as part of the Operational-level Grievance Mechanism (“OGM”) the company has a robust and open system for handling sexual harassment complaints including reporting mechanisms.

Said Ngulube: “The company has invested a lot of resources in ensuring that its workforce is aware of the OGM and any reported allegations or complaints of sexual harassment that are addressed according to the OGM.”

He insisted that EPM has a robust policy on sexual harassment that is well documented and accessible to all their employees and that from time to time, they engage professionals to review our policy to ensure that it is functioning effectively.

He explained: “We are also regularly audited by internationally accredited certification bodies on social issues including sexual harassment. The outcomes of recent audits confirm our commitment and compliance to our sexual harassment policy.”

Horrible Working Conditions

Labourers in the tea estates start working at 6 am in the morning and knock off at 4 pm. At the time of the investigation, PIJ observed workers at Kasembereka Tea Estate who were picking tea in the fields.

The workers get a tea break at 8 a.m but it is of low quality. For example, a large amount of water where only one kilogram of sugar is added serves 70-80 tea pickers. The type of lunch is also inappropriate for human consumption.

Prisca Chinguwo who prepares tea for workers at Limbuli Tea Estate explained about how the welfare of the workers at the estates.

‘’Life is unbearable here. The tea doesn’t taste like tea that we all know. The maize, beans, and pigeon peas that we prepare for lunch meals are mostly in decaying state as most of it were bought by estate management three years ago,” she explained. “The food doesn’t taste good at all. There is no cooking oil or tomatoes in the beans or peas. We take it out of desperation. We are treated like animals. No Manager can dare take the food we are given. It is unpalatable, ’she added.

Ngulube insists that all meals provided are in line with industry guidelines as set out by the Tea Association of Malawi Limited.

“If and when employees are unsatisfied with the meals, they bring this to the attention of management through the shop stewards and the issue gets resolved,” claims Ngulube.

Questionable Remunerations

The PIJ also visited Limbuli Tea Estate on a payday and observed that payslips for some workers whose net pay is MK28, 650.00 (US$35.60) per fortnight are also taxed, this is against Malawi government’s taxable threshold which is at K100,000 (US$124) per month. Workers in the factory department are not paid for overtime.

For instance, on Saturdays, some workers in the factory start working at 6 pm and knock-off at 12 noon, on Sunday but are only given MK1,500.00 (US$1.86) for the additional hours of work.

Ngulube explained on behalf of EPM acknowledged that this issue was identified through their internal controls system at one of their tea estates.

“We are currently conducting a thorough verification exercise at the estate and any unpaid overtime that is due will be paid,” he said.

Physical Assault by a Foreign Manager

PIJ’s visit to Lujeri Tea Estate also established that some foreign managers beat up workers in the course of duty.

One of the workers at Lujeri Tea Estate, Yamikani Naluso, was beaten with a brick by Ajay Singh, the Factory Manager for Bloomfield Tea Estate. Lujeri Tea Estate management stopped Naluso from dragging Singh to court or labour office over the matter. The management ‘compensated’ him with a petty MK100, 000.00 (US$130) to silence him.

“I work with Lujeri Tea Estate as a brick-layer. This other day, I was asked to renovate some building at Bloomfield Tea Estate, a subsidiary of Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd. Whilst on duty, Ajay Singh, the Factory Manager, beat me with a brick. He also gave me several blows. He claimed I didn’t follow his instructions,” said Naluso.

When called for his comment, Singh refuted the allegation before cutting the phone.

‘’Nothing of that sort took place,” snapped Singh.

Shameful Disregards to Compensation

Shocking revelations on compensation for workers emerged were some workers at Limbuli and Minimini Tea Estates, narrated of workers that lost limbs but were never cared for.

Workers mentioned their past colleagues Maxas Clement, Alfonso Makumbisa, and Stephano Joseph Byson who lost limbs while operating a rolling and wood cutting machine respectively; Loveness Chiunda also lost a breast while operating one of these machines. Another worker Dauson Matupa, had his arm fractured by a moving machine at Minimini factory.

The four, are now home and destitute. They were fired from work because they dragged the company to court over their compensation.

PIJ talked to Makumbisa and Byson who said these estates never pay compensation to their workers, injured during work time and if one sues them, they get fired.

They two said they braved it and dragged the Estates management to Mulanje District Labour Office and later to the court.

“The then District Labour Officer for Mulanje, Gideon Mothisa, proved not to be of any help to us. He was siding with estate management. We then sued the estate management. Consequently, we were fired from work,’’ explained Byson who is now home following his job loss, and tries doing subsistent farming using without one hand.

“I feel excruciating pains when I am working in my garden using one arm. I struggle to look after my family. I was fired from work for demanding money for compensation following the loss of arm. My family lives a miserable life. EPM Ltd is too exploitative to its workers. You can’t speak out. You will face the chop as I did,’’ lamented Byson.

Makumbisa who is now a guard at one of the shops at Limbuli Trading Centre also said life is not easy after losing a finger.

“I experience sharp pains on the stump of my finger at times.’’ He explained.

PIJ established that Gideon Mothisa, who once served as Mulanje District Labour Officer, is now the Human Resources Manager for EPM Ltd. He refused to tell his side of story and only indicated he will speak through their company’s PR consultant.

Most of the workers that were never helped at the time Mothisa was a public official responsible for labour issues are of the view that he was rewarded for siding with the estates when resolving their issues against these plantations.

A number of workers got injured in the course of duty but, they are failing to take the management to task for fear of losing their jobs.

Ngulube dismissed as untrue with no basis allegations that many workers are failing to demand compensation in fear of being fired.

“No employee has ever had his / her employment terminated for making or inquiring about his /her compensation claim,” maintained Ngulube.

Ngulube explained that the company’s position is that it follows the provisions enshrined in the Workers’ Compensation Act of the Laws of Malawi Cap. 55:03 to which all employees who may be injured on duty are subjected.

He insisted that workers’ compensation claims are accordingly processed and paid out through the Ministry of Labour.

“No employee is denied employment as a result of getting injured, however, some opt to make their claims through common law,” he said.

Ngulube admitted that indeed, Mothisa was a Labour Officer for the Ministry of Labour stationed at Mulanje District Labour Office for many years and retired at the position of District Labour Officer as a Senior Labour Officer.

Quoting Mothisa’s verbatim in his response to the PIJ questionnaire, Ngulube thus wrote: “My main and major role at the Labour Office and as a Labour Officer was to see to it that both employer and employee fully enjoy their labour rights in the district as enshrined in the country’s labour legislation; therefore, there was no way I could have frustrated the workers.”

Ngulube then says the claim that EPM rewarded him with a job is also baseless and contains no truth.

“Just like every citizen in Malawi, Mr. Mothisa has a right to employment in any sector if he/she has the skills to deliver. It must be noted that Mr. Mothisa is not the first and only person who has been engaged by private sector upon retiring from Government,” he said.

One way of trying to reduce sexual harassment in the estates is hiring more women in managerial and supervisory positions currently dominated by male folks while acknowledging this imbalance, Ngulube said this is a scenario that is not only prevalent in EPM Ltd but in all facets of our society including public and private sectors.

“This is so, because of our past where gender issues were not the order of the day, now things have changed, EPM Ltd too is changing and making every effort to achieve a gender-balanced workforce through various initiatives,” he said.