Rising stronger in the face of failures

Rising stronger in the face of failures

“There is no place in our world or our supply chains for gender based violence and harassment. No place in our world for men to demand sex for work. It is time for women to support each other and welcome those men who recognise and promote equality.”

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Rising stronger in the face of failures

A guest blog by Caroline Downey of Women Working Worldwide

The Panorama investigation ‘Sex for Work: the real cost of our tea’ shown on BBC1 on 20th February found that more than 70 women had been abused by their managers at plantations operated for many years by two companies, Unilever and James Finlay.

Women Working Worldwide supported the tea supplier James Finlay in 2018 to review and evaluate the gender equality work on their tea estates in Kericho, Kenya. The overall impression at the time was of a company doing well to address the issues of gender equality, with Finlay offering skills training, apprenticeships, leadership programmes, robust policies and a determination to increase their 24% women in supervisory and management positions to 30% with a 50% aspirational long-term future target. In addition, they had developed a gender strategy, appointed a Gender Empowerment Manager, strengthened their Gender Committees and introduced programmes to link welfare and gender equity.

They were open to reflection on their practices and we highlighted areas they might need to address such as mechanisation and the impact this would have on the mainly female hand pickers, additional training in handicraft design and marketing to improve the financial security of the group of workers affected by HIV that Finlay were supporting, engaging men more as champions of gender equality and a recommendation to review the provision of housing for male workers whose wives, partners or children might be at risk if the relationship broke down.

In brief, Finlay were doing all the right things a forward thinking company should be doing to address gender equity and equality. They had all the right policies in place and had implemented a very good and supportive gender programme. So, what went wrong?

Although it is still early days, and a full investigation by the company is pending, from our initial review of the situation, it seems this is a story of a failure to uphold and maintain what was at the outset a promising set of initiatives. To maintain it effectively, the male managers would have continued to behave appropriately and uphold the law and company policies. Senior managers would have taken action when behaviours fell below legally binding levels and agreed company standards. The companies would have used data on these issues and identified and tackled areas of concern.

The companies would have properly engaged with and listened to all the women in their employment and ensured women were able to report wrongdoing safely.  They would have protected the survivors and punished the perpetrators of these appalling crimes. The retailers would have ensured due diligence of their supply chains and asked their suppliers to go ‘beyond audit’. The industry would have worked together to collectively stamp out a systemic problem that most likely occurs in every plantation across East Africa and beyond. But it seems that at each of these levels – there were failures.

Ultimately, efforts undertaken by individual businesses have been insufficient to prevent harm in a situation where work is precarious and scarce, giving employers and managers incredible power in the recruitment and treatment of workforces once employed. Overlay this with the gendered dynamic of who takes which roles, and we really should be assuming that violence against women is taking place, rather than waiting to spot it in the data.

This is also a story that is repeated the world over in many, if not all, sectors and throughout history. We know that there are many laws and legislation in place to try to prevent gender based violence, from C190, the ILO convention to protect people at work from violence (still not ratified by Kenya), to CEDAW Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (which Kenya has ratified). In addition, there are Base Codes such as the ETI Base Code which stipulates that ‘no harsh or inhumane treatment shall be allowed’ including sexual harassment. There are specific laws in-country, which in Kenya include the Employment Act which stipulates that the employer must have a sexual harassment policy and ensure that the policy is implemented and train their employees on the parameters of the policy. There is also the Kenyan Sexual Harassment Act, where those found guilty of such offences face a penalty of imprisonment for a term of not less than three years or a fine of not less than KES 100,000 (approx. USD 1,000) or both.

Yet despite all these laws and codes sexual assault and violence is still prevalent in society and in many of our supply chains. What is more disturbing is that we know that many cases of sexual harassment and gender based violence are never reported, due to the fear and stigma associated with these crimes. They are certainly not picked up by certification audits and, unless a company is proactively gathering gender disaggregated grievance data, are very rarely acted upon.

But society seemed to have had enough of these acts of violence being ignored. In 2017 a social movement #MeToo (which was actually started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006) took hold in society after actress Alysa Milano tweeted ‘me too’ following accusations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, and asked other women to share their experiences of sexual assault under the #MeToo banner. Thousands of women shared their stories and raised awareness of the endemic and systemic abuse of women and girls.

Worldwide the cases of discrimination and harassment of women increased during Covid-19 and further exposed the extent of the risks that women and girls face every day. In 2022/23 in the UK, we see the Police, Fire Brigade, the Government and, most recently, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), come under increasing public scrutiny and condemnation for their misogynistic, homophobic and bullying cultures. This exposure and subsequent actions against perpetrators will hopefully encourage more women to come forward to report abuses and this culture of tolerance for violence against women will be broken.

In Kenya the #MeToo movement is gaining ground although like many other countries, openly talking about sexual assault and rape is very difficult for women, especially if they are accusing those in positions of power and their very survival depends on keeping quiet.  A number of women in the programme told the reporter that because work is so scarce, they were left with no choice but to give in to the sexual demands of their bosses or face having no income.

There is no place in our world or our supply chains for gender based violence and harassment. No place in our world for men to demand sex for work. It is time for women to support each other and welcome those men who recognise and promote equality. The growing social condemnation of these acts of violence, combined with increased legislation and improved due diligence will lead to zero tolerance of gender based violence across the world.

This investigation took another sad turn with the untimely death of the activist Godfrey Onyango on 24 March. Godfrey, who was the Director of the NGO Justice and Environment Foundation, had said he would represent the women workers who had been subjected to sexual harassment and violence on the tea estates in Kenya. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

Caroline Downey is the Executive Director of Women Working Worldwide, an INGO based in Manchester UK, working in partnership with womens rights organisations, unions and companies on promoting women’s rights in global supply chains.
Women Working Worldwide, THIRST and Michael Pennant-Jones are working to produce a paper on the structural and systemic drivers of sexual exploitation specific to the tea sector to help frame the discussion – and resulting actions by the tea industry and its stakeholders – going forward. The paper is due to be published at the end of May 2023.
The views expressed in guest blogs are those of the author and are not necesssarily endorsed by THIRST. They are published to stimulate discussion on important topical issues.