BY CHISOMO NGULUBE & JOSEPHINE CHINELE
Linda (her real name withheld) and 35 other female workers from the tea-growing districts of Mulanje and Thyolo in Southern Malawi went from earning not more than K50,000 (US$50) a month to instant millionaires.
In 2021, as previously reported by the Platform for Investigative Journalism, the High Court in the United Kingdom awarded the women an out-of-court settlement of 2.3 million British Pounds (MK2.3 billion at the time) in compensation for experiencing gender-based violence (including, in some cases, rape) and sexual harassment in the line of duty at tea estates owned by Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd (EPM), an indirect subsidiary of Camellia plc, a British firm, in 2019.
The women were represented by a British law firm, Leigh Day. Their identities were kept under wraps. But our undercover investigations led us to five of the 36 women whose rug-to-riches fairytale has, unfortunately, become their worst nightmare.
The women in separate interviews narrated how the compensation has exposed them to various forms of abuse from those they worked with to access the money, but also others in society who attributed their sudden wealth to alleged satanism.
Linda remembers the horrific experience like it was yesterday. She was doing her job, as usual, picking tea in one of EPM’s 11 tea estates in Mulanje when her supervisor appeared from nowhere and raped her.
“He used to assign me to work in fields far apart from my colleagues. On this day, I was assigned to pick tea behind some grass heaps. I didn’t know his motive until the day, he raped me… After the act, he threatened to deal with me should I tell anyone about it. I continued to work, but it wasn’t easy,” recalls Linda, then a single mother of five and two other dependents, sitting cosily on a grey sofa in her well-furnished spacious sitting room, a huge jump from her former grass-thatched house. It is surrounded by four other houses that she owns.
“The flashbacks of this incident took away my peace of mind. I continued to work because I needed the money to support my children. As I struggled with this incident, I realised I was pregnant with this rapist. It was the most difficult moment of my life,” she recalls, her eyes clouding with tears.
Before she could recover from this trauma, her employers discovered she was pregnant and fired her: “They said estate rules don’t allow pregnant women labourers to work. The incident happened in 2018 and my child was born in August 2019.”
Another victim *Chifundo, in her early 30s, says her immediate supervisor continuously made sexual advances toward her despite her refusal when she worked as a hand weeder for another tea estate in Mulanje.
“Because I refused, I was assigned hard labour. I tried to report the matter to his seniors, but he continued and verbally assaulted me in the process. My husband was very disappointed with these issues but we both had no voice to take the matter further,” laments Chifundo, a mother of three, whose husband also worked at the same estate as a guard but quit after she was compensated.
Sex for jobs
Thirty-year-old *Jennifer, who also worked at the same estate as Chifundo was indecently assaulted by her immediate supervisor while in the line of duty.
“The head of division assigned us [labourers] to carry grass bundles for use in the nurseries. He told me to drop them somewhere before I could reach the place, he ordered me to stop and indecently touched me…. I shouted at the top of my voice, and he quickly left,” recalls the married mother of three.
Jennifer further narrates: “He went straight to my other supervisor to report that I wasn’t working, but this wasn’t true. He was just angry that he didn’t succeed in having sex with me. The other supervisor later shouted at me and told me that he will record me absent for this day.
“He wasn’t the only one making sexual advances towards me. Another supervisor also did the same, I refused.”
When she went back to work the next day, she was assigned to manually cultivate on hard ground, and Jennifer says she did such work for three years.
“I had no other option but to remain silent because I needed the job. My husband worked as a gate guard at another estate, and his income wasn’t enough to sustain our needs.”
The five women we spoke to, indicate that much as they refused the sexual advances, others accepted to have relations or convenient sex with supervisors or others in positions of influence in order to be assigned ‘simpler’ assignments such as making tea or cleaning the offices.
“You should know that these are temporary jobs and as women, we usually want to be re-employed after the contract expires,” says Jennifer, who was never given another job opportunity when her contract expired.
The women believe that people don’t get employment at the estates for free. One needs to give something in exchange, adding they have evidence that women need to have a sexual relationship or a once-off sexual encounter with influential supervisors to get employment, “If it’s a man they need to pay money to get jobs.”
Relief was the prevailing emotion, says Linda and the four other women, when ‘agents’ of Leigh Day individually approached them to present their cases in the UK High Court. She claims that at least 80 women were initially ready to fight for justice, but that some dropped off along the way for fear of losing their jobs or marriages.
“When the court outcome was announced, we had meetings for five days at a lodge where we were taught financial management skills,” said Linda.
The women we have spoken to say they received compensations ranging from MK5 million (US$5,000) to MK30 million (US$30,000) each. We can reveal that even though they know each other, they were strongly advised against disclosing the compensation amounts to each other.
Our visit established that the women’s lives drastically changed for the better in an instant, attracting lots of public attention in their communities. All the five women we spoke to have been subjected to verbal abuse, and torture and have left their villages after being branded ‘Satanic’.
Linda, 38, was compensated with close to MK30 million (US$30,000) which she used to buy eight houses at a trading centre in Mulanje; built another house in her village, and a Church in her home village.
“People knew me as a mere tea picker. They don’t know my story…we were told not to disclose anything. So, they noticed my sudden lifestyle change and the investments I have made, and they call me satanic. Unfortunately, the compensation money came at the same time I lost my nephew. Life has been hard, that’s why I decided to leave my home village and live in one of my houses, here at the trading centre.
She adds: “But that hasn’t helped. People have traced me, and they’ve been coming to me asking for my help in leading them to Satanism, so they too may become rich. I felt sorry for myself the other day when someone came to ask for my help in offering her two sons as sacrifices because they are troublesome…”
Linda has taken to alcohol to cope with the stress, forcing the church she helped build to excommunicate her.
Chifundo and Jennifer are in the same predicament. They left their home villages because everyone questioned their newly-found riches and concluded they were Satanic.
“I had to leave. It was the chief of my area that spearheaded speculation because he was frustrated that we didn’t share the money. He says he wanted his own share of the money because we are his subjects. We haven’t had peace, the only consolation is that we know deep down that this is clean money, not Satanic money,” laments Chifundo who fidgeted at the idea of meeting us-strangers in her new home; and had to be constantly reassured that we meant no harm. She got K15 million (US$15,000) which according to her has since run out and she would want to be employed again.
The women further claimed that some of their friends migrated to South Africa to escape the stress, and a few others had not even touched their money.
Mental health expert and PhD fellow at the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences, Chitsanzo Mafuta says, although it would be difficult to conclude without research and clinical evidence on the 36 women, instant financial stability can be a stress trigger.
“These women’s responses will depend on a number of factors including genetics, early life events, personality, and social and economic circumstances.
“Research and clinical evidence indicate that harassment is associated with increased risk of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as diminished self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological well-being. If these women experienced these issues and have been unresolved, it is postulated that their response to the positive financial status would likely be faulty,” he observes.
Besides the ‘satanic’ allegations, the women have also gone through further abuse by some ‘agents’ engaged in identifying them for the process of compensation, financial management mentorship and worked as a link with the UK team, they alleged.
Prior to receiving compensation money, the women went through financial management training, where the said ‘agents’ in Malawi were in attendance. Even though, the women were told not to reveal to each other their compensation amounts. It is alleged that one Mr Godfrey Mfiti allegedly got money from some compensated women.
“He came to me by car and told me to go with him to the bank to withdraw money for him. I gave him K600,000. I’m told he did the same to some of my other colleagues,” Linda claims.
She says the same person took money from another colleague tricking her he would help build her house: “He had her Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card, and he had authority over her money. The house was never completed, and he disappeared,” claims Linda.
But when contacted to get his side of the story, Mfiti fumed about these allegations, threatening to sue the reporters for defamation. He indirectly denied the allegations, suggesting that he should facilitate a meeting with the journalists, the women in question and the person he worked with on this project.
“…. For the record purpose, am available from 6th September. I have just spoken to my lawyer. The advice is the same, if you mention my name, I will sue you personally. If you wait till I give you my side of the story, you alleged with unknown names, then am ready coz (sic) don’t hold any public office. Am a private citizen. Thank You,” reads a verbatim Short Message Service (SMS) he sent to one of the journalists after talking to him on several occasions where he insisted on having an in-person meeting with the journalist.
Head of Media Relations at Leigh Day, Caroline Ivison said in an email response that the law firm is aware of allegations of money taken from their clients by individuals, saying it is now subject to an ongoing investigation by the police, but they could not comment further.
The Law firm also denies having subcontracted anyone to help in ensuring the women received their compensation.
“Our clients received their compensation directly from Leigh Day, with no deductions from the firm,” she said.
Following the EPM case, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF) reported Malawi to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), alleging widespread gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the tea sector.
But Malawi’s Ministry of Labour, the government regulator of labour issues and the Tea Association of Malawi Limited (TAML), an organisation that represents the country’s tea industry on matters of trade and policy, have denied the allegations.
“I personally went to Geneva to answer this case, which the government knew nothing about. I told the ILO that as a government we are just hearing this issue from the grapevine, and we have no details. Malawi is not guilty of these allegations.
“The issue of Malawian women being compensated through a United Kingdom Court is even confusing because we don’t know these women and, as the government, nobody gave us a report on this issue. How will the abuse end if everything is done in secret and hidden from us who are supposed to help,” laments Minister of Labour, Vera Kamtukule.
She fears the women could have been duped of their compensation money considering their vulnerability and social economic status, but that would be hard to prove and determine because the issue has been kept under wraps.
She claims that even though sexual harassment issues are alleged to be rampant in Thyolo and Mulanje districts, there is no report of such, at police stations in Mulanje and Thyolo.
Both Mulanje and Thyolo Police stations say they do not have specific records of gender-based violence or sexual harassment from tea estate employees.
“Probably the reason may be because these estate companies have internal committees handling such cases,” said Mulanje Police spokesperson, Gresham Ngwira.
Just like the Minister of Labour, TAML chairperson, Sangwani Hara says he was aware of the sexual harassment and compensation issues but received no official communication about the association’s action.
“Government is keen to follow up on this issue because these women need psychosocial support. Keeping this case under wraps has put us in a very difficult situation. We can’t respond to things we don’t even know about,” he said.
Hara added: “We are concerned with these UK cases. If these are indeed Malawian women, why were the cases not heard here? Our courts have been given internationally recognized award-winning judgements and our judicial system is capable of handling these cases. Why were they heard in the UK? And why are these people not working with us on the ground?”
He suspects someone may be manipulating the system to benefit themselves through the sexual harassment claims showcased through the secrecy of the issue.
But responding, Ivison said the Law Firm strongly refutes the allegation that they took any of their client’s money, “All our clients were paid 100 per cent of their compensation. No money was deducted from our client’s compensation for Leigh Day’s legal fees. We take any suggestion to the contrary with the utmost seriousness.”
The Law Firm could not give a breakdown of how the compensation money was distributed because the settlement was a confidential agreement between the women and the defendants. Further, Leigh Day refused to explain whether they have at any point worked with the Ministry of Labour or the Tea Association of Malawi on this matter.
“We cannot comment on what the Ministry of Labour or Tea Association knows or do not know about sexual harassment in the tea estates,” Ivison said in a written response to a questionnaire, adding that this does not prohibit the women from reporting any intimidation or criminal behaviour to the police, “we would encourage them to do so.”
Addressing sexual harassment in tea estates
According to TAML, the Association’s stakeholders strung together a sexual harassment policy in 2017: “This is reviewed every year through a gap analysis with a number of stakeholders. We also have grievance handling mechanisms within this policy where a number of abuse allegations have been handled and actions are taken.”
Hara claimed that all women working in the tea sector have high levels of sexual harassment awareness through the many workshops the association conducts.
The ground-breaking settlement of claims included; compensation for the Claimants and the establishment of a number of measures designed to improve the safety and security of EPM’s female employees and improve conditions for women in the wider community. These measures include a Women’s Empowerment Initiative to fund projects to enhance the skills, employment opportunities, and educational attainment of women and girls in and around EPM’s operations, providing benefits both to the Claimants and the wider community.
EPM’s Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Robert Kachilele says the company has published its first Independent Monitors report outlining its interventions to mitigate sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
“EPM is also working with a number of national and international stakeholders including the ministries of Gender, Labour, and a number of flagship NGOs in the country. We also have contracted international experts on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to assist us to develop an Operational Grievance Mechanism (OGM). Our OGM, which in Chichewa is named ‘Tikumveni’ [let’s hear from you], is designed to address any grievances in a sensitive, confidential and effective manner,” Kachilele said.
However, the compensated women claim they are yet to benefit from EPM’s interventions.
According to Leigh Day, EPM’s actions are monitored by Triple R Alliance, an independent expert organisation that monitors, guides and oversees Camellia’s commitments under the settlement agreement.
“Our extensive work with EPM covers many different work streams and engages many different stakeholders. As part of this process, EPM will continue to make public key reports which detail key interventions being made,” said Luz Zandvliet, Triple R’s Director in an email response.
Last year, Lujeri Tea Estate and its UK-headquartered parent company, multinational PGI, were served with a claim issued in the High Court in London for a failure to protect women employees from rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, coercion, and discrimination by male workers.
The claims, which are yet to be proven before the court, list 22 instances of sexual harassment, 13 instances of sexual assault, 11 instances of coerced sexual relations and 10 instances of rape. Half of the Claimants were working in the macadamia orchards when their mistreatment happened.
We also met more women who claim they were sexually harassed but could not run to Leigh Day as part of the out-of-court settlement was on condition that no others cases are brought before a UK court.
Keen Human Rights Commission
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent national human rights institution established by the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi to protect and investigate violations of the rights accorded by the Constitution or any other law, says it is aware of the alleged sexual harassment in Malawi’s tea and macadamia sector. The Commission, however, said it has not received any complaints from that sector.
“But we are alive to the alleged sexual harassment issues there. It is an area the Commission is working on this year. Retaliation for reporting sexual harassment is against the tenets of human rights, particularly in such sensitive cases,” said MHRC Public Relations Officer, Kate Kujaliwa.
She said the MHRC’s experience has so far shown that most workplaces have underlying cases of sexual harassment: “Even though it is not a new phenomenon, people, including victims, have recently become more empowered to report or speak against sexual harassment. The stigma associated with sexual harassment and reporting such acts remains a challenge.”
Kujaliwa points out that Sexual Harassment policies should have provisions prohibiting retaliatory acts and measures to deal with retaliatory actions.
“Victims should also know that the Gender Equality Act provides that a person does not have to exhaust internal mechanisms but can institute criminal or civil proceedings against their perpetrator,” Kujaliwa explains, but says there is still need for more awareness.
The tea sector is the second-largest employer in Malawi, with over 60,000 workers at peak season, 40 per cent of whom are women. EPM has 15 estates, four in Thyolo and the rest in Mulanje.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Centre. The Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) is an independent non-profit centre for investigative journalism. If you have suffered or witnessed any sexual abuse, report it to the police or any organisation that support human rights.