James Finlay: Scots firm’s injured tea pickers ‘given drugs to mask pain’ and keep working

INJURED plantation workers of a Scottish tea firm at the centre of a multi-million pound negligence action were given painkillers to mask the pain they were in to allow them to keep working, it has been alleged.

And pregnant women were among those who were asked to work in “extremely difficult circumstances” at the Kenyan plantation of Aberdeen-based tea company James Finlay (Kenya) Ltd which is at the centre of a multi-million pound claim by hundreds of staff.

Representatives of the workers have been been officially sanctioned by Lord Weir to take forward the multi-million-pound negligence action.

Details of some of the conditions Kenyan workers were facing emerged as prominent Scots legal figure Colin McEachran QC was approved as the representative party for the Kenyan workers in the class action.

The retired advocate – who acted in major cases such as inquiries into Lockerbie and the Piper Alpha disaster – was president of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal for Scotland (PATS) for 18 years between 1995 and 2013.

James Finlay, which supplies Tesco and Sainsbury’s, has previously stated in part of its defence to the claim that no decisions about the working environment in Kenya were taken in Scotland.

It has raised concerns that the complaint had become an inquiry into all the working practices in the plantation in Kenya and should be more specific.

It comes as the tea company, which can trace its roots back to Scotland in the 18th century, is separately coming under scrutiny in Kenya over claims of exploiting tea-pickers with low rates of pay.


James Finlay’s estates in Kericho, Kenya, stretch across almost 25,000 acres. 

The landmark lawsuit against the Scottish firm argues that workers were exposed to conditions that would clearly be harmful, resulting in permanently damage to their spines.

In the allegations, the Kenyan workers claim there was a routine practice of company representatives administering pain-killing drugs to employees who requested them – and were used to allow them to carry on picking.

Andrew Smith QC for Thompsons which has been assisting the Kenyan workers in the case said: “We say they were issuing medication to mask the pain.

“[James Finlay] present this as being that they provided medical assistance. The definition that we were provided with is that those who were complaining of pain and discomfort were given painkilling medication to allow them to continue with the work they were carrying out.”

He added: “And then we have workers without maternity leave, who are having to work extremely difficult circumstances ie being pregnant. All of these are relevant to the issue of how the work practices impacted upon the individuals.”

It is alleged tea-pickers typically got paid just £25 a week for up to 12 hours in a six-day week and were typically expected to carry over two stones (15 kilos) of the pickings repeatedly on their back for over half a mile of rough and hilly ground and slopes. In some “extraordinarily” instances, they were expected to collect up to five stones (30kg) of tea in a day or not get paid.

It is also alleged that the workers had quotas which meant they had to put a certain amount of tea if they were to be paid.

Damages are being sought not just for the injuries that were suffered, but also for the psychological damage suffered when they were out of work.

Mr Smith said in evidence to the Court of Session: “I’ve seen at least one psychiatric report that confirms that as a consequence of the the loss of work, which was consequent to the inability to work for physical reasons there has been a psychological or psychiatric component. So I don’t wish the losses to be restricted to obviously just to muscular skeletal injury.”

John Thomson QC for James Finlay indicated that the complaint should be more defined.


Colin McEachran QC was approved as the representative party

“The pursuers seem to be engaging in an inquiry into entire working practices,” he said.

“What in broad and descriptive terms seems to have happened is we have the Trojan horse of the summons now being opened up.

Ronald Onyango, a Kenyan-born British lawyer, has said the number of people involved in the case could rise to 1,500 if it is allowed to proceed.

The workers say tea-pickers typically got paid just £25 a week for up to 12 hours in a six-day week and expected to carry up to two stones (12 kilos) of the pickings on their back for over half a mile of rough and hilly ground and slopes. In some “extraordinarily” instances, they were expected to collect up to five stones (30kg) of tea in a day or not get paid.

It is alleged this gave rise to tripping and falling while carrying the pickings baskets and also prolonged the bending, twisting and reaching required in gathering the tea.

And it is claimed in evidence that, had similar working conditions existed in the UK, it was likely the company would have been shut down instantaneously by the Health and Safety Executive.

James Finlay’s estates in Kericho stretch across almost 25,000 acres – the size of Cardiff – and include a Fair Trade-certified factory and farm. The company started up in 1750 as a Glasgow cotton trader and specialises in growing and processing tea and coffee around the world and is now part of global giant, the Swire Group, which has farms and factories in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Argentina, and China.

The case was filed in Scotland by a human rights-focused Nairobi law firm in Nairobi, Ronald K Onyango Advocates, and its Scottish agents, Thompsons.

James Finlay had previously argued that any claims should be dealt with by the courts in Kenya, not the Court of Session in Scotland.

It has defended its record on health and safety and says it makes a major contribution to the economy of the Kericho region in Kenya, where it has 10,300 hectares (25,500 acres) of tea fields and employs more than 7,000 people.

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