A few years ago, there was one company that stood out as having the best record in levelling up the power imbalance between women and men working in tea. It featured in a case study on Gender Equality across supply chains:
“There are a number of examples of good practice… ranging from the appointment of a Gender Empowerment Manager to the development of a Gender Equality and Diversity (GED) Policy, to proactive recruitment procedures and specific training and support for women to be qualified for ‘male’ jobs. Underpinning all their work on gender is their Gender Equality and Diversity Policy.”
The company was Finlays – one of the two featured in Monday’s Panorama exposé on women being subjected to systemic sexual abuse by powerful male tea estate supervisors and managers.
So, what went wrong? Why did all those policies, procedures and trainings fail to protect these women?
Is it because one or two bad apples always slip through the net? (Yet the undercover reporter took her complaint through the proper channels, and nothing happened).
Is it because such behaviour is a “cultural norm” and therefore beyond the power of the company to change? (Yet the tea industry itself was able to sweep a host of cultural norms away just to come into existence… ).
Or is it because the structure and system of tea plantations inherently keeps women trapped in a position of powerlessness? Women are concentrated in the lowest paid jobs and almost all their supervisors and managers are men. And wherever men are placed in a position of power over women, those women are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Of course, not all men would choose to use this power to abuse women – but the point is that the system makes it easy for them to do so if they are so inclined. And for women with children to support and few – if any – alternative sources of income (tea tends to dominate employment prospects wherever it is grown), for women on temporary (or no) contracts who are seen as the lowest of the workforce, it is hard to stand up to the abuse.
So, what happens now?
Tea companies and organisations have issued statements expressing their shock and disappointment at the revelations. Contractors have been suspended and perpetrators sacked. Promises of investigations and remediation have been made. Which is all as it should be.
But all those things have happened before. Ten years ago. In Kenya. After these revelations prompted the forging of those gender policies at Finlays’ and Unilever (the other company featured in the Panorama programme).
Yet the system remains the same.
The language of policies is not the language of tea pluckers or their supervisors. It is the language of policy-makers, companies, investors, academics and NGOs. Unless it can be translated into real and raw action – it is meaningless. And even then, its chances of succeeding will be low – because it is imposed from above.
Solutions to social problems have to come from the women and men themselves. From within their own “cultural norms”.
Like the Indian woman who used to get harassed by the same man every day as she walked to work across Kolkata’s main park – until she went to tie a rakhi amulet round his wrist and he never bothered her again. The amulet affirms a Hindu sister’s bond with her “brother” and affirms his obligation to love and protect her – so of course he couldn’t go on harassing her. The layers of cultural meaning implicit in this act and the deep psychological impact it had on the man could never have been dreamt up by a policy writer in some distant head office.
So let’s ask the women and men who work at the coal-face of tea – in each culturally unique region of each country where tea is grown – what changes in the system they think would make them safer from sexual abuse. And then let’s act on what they tell us.
Let’s write policies based on things that are really meaningful for the women we are trying to protect, rather than on what we think people want us to say. And then let’s actually put them into action, monitor them, enforce them, improve them, and embed them.
Let’s not look back in another ten years and have to say again “So, what went wrong…?”