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Battle for labour rights at Lujeri tea estates

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One of Lujeri’s estates in Mulanje

By Deogratias Mmana:

Trouble, and not tea, is brewing at Lujeri Tea Estates in Mulanje District where eight fired managers and the company’s management are locked in a battle over labour rights.

One of the company’s officials however, when contacted by Times, confirmed and justified the dismissals but could not comment further, saying their Managing Director was best placed to comment.

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In April this year, the company fired three senior managers-Tea Manager Henderson Kaputeni; Division Manager, Felix Chagunda and Senior Manager Laurent Mwafilaso.

It also fired five head clerks Loudon Chikopa, Benito Namuhaya, Benson Matope, Robert Dinala and payroll clerk Lucy Phiri.

The reasons for their dismissals ranged from demanding money to offer employment; deducting employees pay from their pay envelopes on pay day to sexual harassment. Some have two of these charges.

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In separate interviews, the officers denied the charges and claimed that the company trampled on their labour rights as management failed to parade or allow them bring witnesses for cross-examination during the hearing. They also claimed that the company did not give them notice pay and severance pay.

However, in the invitations to the disciplinary hearing, the company’s Human Resources Manager Miriam Luhanga indicated that the accused had the right to call witnesses.

“You are advised that you have the right to representation by a friend or colleague who is a full time employee of the company. You are also notified that you will be allowed to state your case, to lead evidence, to call witnesses and to cross-question other parties,” reads Luhanga’s communication to one of the employees, Matope, dated March 12, 2021.

The employees have since brought the matter to Industrial Relations Court (IRC) through their lawyers, Kita and Company and another Blantyre based legal firm, which did not want to be mentioned in the story. This firm represents Chagunda.

One of the dismissal letters going to Chagunda reads:

“Following the hearing on 25th March, 2021, the disciplinary committee found that you were guilty of the allegations levelled against you in that; you demanded for money in order to employ personnel. You have been deducting employees’ pay during wages payment by removing money from their pay envelopes.”

The letter was signed by Lujeri Tea Estate Managing Director Grant Bramsen, who gave the recipient two days for an appeal against the decision. He also gave him seven days to vacate from the company house; from April 5 to April 12, 2021.

Chagunda went ahead to ask for an appeal, which was on April 28, 2021. He had six grounds for the appeal.

“The disciplinary committee erred in not inviting my accusers to the hearing to allow me cross-examine them to establish the truth in this matter,” reads his notice of appeal dated April 7, 2021.

He further accused the company of not allowing him to invite his witnesses. He also said the company refused to give him the audit report which contained the issues he was alleged to have committed. He also faulted the disciplinary committee for firing him based on hearsay evidence.

His counterpart, Kaputeni, was fired for alleged sexual harassment. In an interview, Kaputeni denied the charge and said the company did not bring any witness during the hearing.

The head clerks had similar charge of deducting employees’ pay during wages payment by removing money from their pay envelopes.

A dismissal letter authored by Bramsen dated April 15, 2021 to Chikopa reads: “This is to notify you that a decision has been made to release you from your contract with Lujeri Tea Estates with immediate effect. This follows the allegation levelled against you that you have been deducting employees pay during wages payment by removing money from their pay envelopes.”

“Based on the disciplinary hearing on 17th March, 2021, the committee found that you failed to comply or meet company work standards or duties which has contributed in having a detrimental effect on the company’s business, local and international. The conduct itself has also violated company’s local and international image.”

Lawyer representing the head clerks, Chikondi Chamkakala from Kita and Company, said they served Lujeri Tea Estates with statement of claim and the company denied everything.

“Our argument is that they have no reason to dismiss the people because they didn’t follow procedures. The right to be heard was not there. No witnesses were brought for hearing. Employment Act says rules of natural justice should be adhered to,” Chamkakala said, adding that the company did not give notice pay and severance pay.

Chamkakala said they are now waiting for the IRC registrar to give a date for pre-hearing of the matter.

Chagunda’s lawyer, who did not want to be named, also said they have commenced action against the company at the IRC.

In an interview on Tuesday at the company, Luhanga confirmed and justified the dismissals but she refused to give further details and referred us to Bramsen.

Bramsen acknowledged receiving our questionnaire through Luhanga and was yet to respond.

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a registered charity in England and Wales, published in March 2021, that Lujeri Tea Estate and its mother company PGI received a lawsuit from Leigh Day legal firm for failing to protect women from sexual abuse at work at Lujeri tea estates.

Following the lawsuit, Fairtrade suspended its certification of Lujeri’s tea production facility since the lawsuit prompted an audit that found “areas of non-compliance.”

The estates, unlike the factory, were not Fairtrade certified in the first place, although the logo is used on the company’s website according to the website, wwwbusiness-humanrights.org/es/.

Lujeri is also certified by the Rainforest Alliance which said was aware of the lawsuit in February 2020 but unable to investigate because of Covid restrictions.

Lujeri Tea Estate responded to the lawsuit through Bramsen: The entire management team at Lujeri has been deeply troubled by these allegations. Following the Oxfam report in 2016, we implemented processes that we judged would address the risks of abuse.

“Clearly they did not go far enough. Our absolute priority is to ensure we implement impact’s recommendations to the letter and that the potential for any form of abuse is stamped out.”

PGI applied to strike out the claim against it.

It said: “We have been shocked and deeply dismayed by details of the allegations made against Lujeri Tea Estates, relating to the conduct of certain male supervisors… Since learning of these allegations, we have been kept fully informed of the investigation, review and actions that the management team at Lujeri immediately undertook.”

Lujeri Tea Estates, which operates under its United Kingdom headquartered parent company, multinational PGI, supplies most of the UK’s tea brands including PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley and Lipton.

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