A precedent-setting decision means that a Scotland court will hear a landmark class action lawsuit alleging “oppressive” and “unsafe” labor practices by tea supplier James Finlay Kenya. Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in July that the suit involving tea workers in Kenya will proceed in Scotland.
James Finlay Kenya must now defend its actions 11,000 kilometers from its tea estates, where the company employs 7,000 workers to harvest and process tea planted on 25,000 acres (10,100 hectares) in Kericho County, Kenya.
The precedent-setting decision reverses a lower court ruling that had halted a class action lawsuit filed in 2021 on behalf of 700 workers. That suit alleged that Finlay Kenya enforced conditions that were “clearly harmful” to workers resulting in permanent damage to their spines. The suit asserted that workers were required to lift and carry tea baskets weighing up to 30 pounds (12 kg) and then walk a half mile over rough, hilly ground. Workers were required to pluck as much as 30 kg a day to earn around $20 in 2017, the plaintiffs claimed. According to a report in The Guardian, workers reported toiling 12 hours each day during a six-day week without breaks for rest.
In a public statement, the plaintiffs’ attorney Patrick McGuire, a partner at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of today’s judgment. It is a historic day in Scots Law. It serves as a stark message to every company based in Scotland that they must take their employees’ safety seriously no matter where they work around the world. The court has spoken — if you choose to set your company up in Scotland, then the Scottish Courts will follow you wherever you operate.”
The suit could lead to tens of millions of dollars in settlements with individual victims who seek to claim compensation for pain, suffering, and financial losses. James Finlay said it is reviewing the court’s ruling and is “deciding on appropriate next steps.”
More than 1,000 workers have joined the suit since Thompsons Solicitors filed it. Most describe “musculoskeletal injuries” from lifting and carrying tea.
The filing asserts that the company was bound to take reasonable care for the safety of employees while at work and to respond to the high incidence of injury by assessing the work method to reduce or eliminate the risk of injury to their employees. This means an obligation to provide reasonable training on safety and paying reasonable wages so that employees would not be obliged to continue to work excessive hours or carry heavy weights over long distances and uneven terrain, reported BBC News.
Aberdeen-based James Finlay defended its health and safety record and argued that the trial should be conducted in Kenya under the Kenyan Work Injury Benefits Act (WIBA). Kenyan workers appealed to the King’s help, according to The Times.
Finlay’s attorneys argued, “In Kenya, the case will be more suitably tried, taking into account the interest of all the parties and the ends of Justice.” Finlays maintains that the company was legally established in Kenya and bound by Kenyan laws.
A spokesperson for the company said, “James Finlay Kenya is legally established in Kenya, and we respect the sovereignty of the Republic of Kenya as an independent state and are bound by her constitution and laws. The safety and welfare of everyone connected with our business is always our number one priority.”
Lawyers representing workers countered that had similar working conditions existed in the United Kingdom, Finlay would likely have been shut down immediately by the Health and Safety Executive, as reported by The Herald.