Malawian women working in tea and macadamia estates in Mulanje and Thyolo districts have spoken about the sexual abuse and exploitation they suffer at the hands of their male supervisors in the estates which are owned by two United Kingdom based conglomerates.
An investigation report published by Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) has revealed the sexual abuse and exploitation workers experience at the estates in Malawi.
In Malawi, Eastern Produce Malawi (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.
EPM is partly owned by Camellia Group Limited, a UK-based company which makes over 300 million pounds (over K337 billion) per year from its operations in various sectors.
Another UK-based company, PGI Group, owns Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd and Thyolo Nuts Company Ltd. Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd alone owns Bloomfield Tea Estate, Nsuwadzi Tea Estate, Sayama Tea Estate, Khongoloni Tea Estate, and Nchima Macadamia Nuts Estate.
It is at these estates where sexual abuse has been reported with some women revealing that they were fired after refusing sexual advances from their supervisors.
According to the PIJ report, a woman who was working as a Data Entry Clerk for Phwazi Tea Estate but but was based at Limbuli Tea Estate, was fired after she refused to sleep with her supervisor.
The supervisor told the female worker that there was also another manager, apart from himself, looking to sexually abuse her and she could not be protected if she refused.
“He promised to protect me from any ills from his fellow manager, if I accepted his love proposal. I also said no,” the woman said.
Another woman working in the sorting department at Limbuli Tea Estate Factory complained that she has been subjected to various abuses after refusing to sleep with her manager.
According to the woman, the manager, in retaliation, did not renew her. She only managed to keep her job following the intervention of management.
She said: “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.”
The woman also complained that her husband was fired as a clerk at the same estate as the manager suspected that the husband encouraged the wife to report the sexual abuse attempts to management.
Estates usually employ workers on temporary basis at the beginning of the season. Managers take advantage of this arrangement to sexually abuse women looking for work.
At Limbuli Tea Estate, three managers and a supervisor forced female workers to have sex with them in order to have their jobs secured, PIJ reported.
Lujeri Tea Estates Ltd has also fired managers in recent months over sexual harassment.
In an interview with PIJ on condition of anonymity, a manager at Lujeri Tea admitted that that Lujeri Tea Estate Ltd and EPM Ltd have been ignoring complaints on reports of sexual harassment for years.
The manager, while noting that the companies now encourages women to speak out, said there is no clear policy on sexual harassment and female workers feel helpless.
“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.
However, EPM’s communication consultant Warthogs rejected claims that EPM Ltd has ignored evidence provided by the women workers sexually harassed by their male bosses
Warthogs’ owner and thought leader Dumisani Ngulube told PIJ that 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 added that the company’s policy on sexual harassment is well documented, is accessible to all their employees and is frequently reviewed.
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.”
In 2019, 36 Malawian women through UK law firm Leigh Day sued EPM together with other companies in the Camellia Group. The women alleged that they 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 which is an indirect subsidiary of Camellia plc.
In February last year, Eastern Produce Malawi Limited agreed to pay K2.4 billion to the women and also agreed to implement several projects aimed at empowering of women and girls in and around EPM’s operations.
In 2020, 31 women also sued PGI Group Ltd, the UK-based parent company of Malawian tea company Lujeri. The women accuse the company of failure to protect them from rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination by male workers. They alleged that many contracted HIV and others became pregnant due to the sexual abuse.