Economics of enlightenment: HIV+ tea workers lead productive lives

In Kericho, Kenya, tea plantation owners provide antiretrovirals to their HIV afflicted tea workers so that they can return to near full productivity, benefitting the companies and their families.

Recently a friend from my university-days visited from Athens and naturally our conversation drifted to our stages in life. With Greece still struggling to right its economy, it’s understandable that she lamented about her work conditions. A laundry list of usual work place unpleasantness; bad bosses, low wages, long hours. Inevitably my thoughts wander to the tea workers’ plight in India that was published in BBC and other media a few months ago. The gist being poor living standards with barely subsistence wages lead to high levels of malnutrition among the workers. This makes them vulnerable to fatal illnesses.

hiv kenyan tea workers

Imagine my delightful surprise when I stumbled upon an article on a rarely heard project called the Kenyan tea plucker research that proves there are enlightened employers in the world. Just maybe we can entertain the thought that not all corporations are heartless with the goal of profit at all cost. The project was run by professor Jonathon Simon from Boston University’s School of Public Health (SPH). The research aim to prove that HIV-infected workers, given the same antiretroviral drugs available in developed countries, will return to near full productivity, benefitting their employers and their families.

This collaborative research between SPH researchers and plantation owners shows that corporate and basic humanitarian responsibilities towards employees are a win-win proposition. Simon believes this idea can be applied globally to not just tea pickers, but miners, coffee pickers, cotton pickers, and any labourers in all industries. Understanding the reality of life and economic factors, he feels if corporations know what’s good for their bottom line, they will make it happen. His mantra when he met with corporate leaders being, “Don’t run away from HIV. Invest in it. This is an opportunity.”

HIV tea workers Kenya

I tried to write Simon to know more about this project but he has since retired in 2015. Nevertheless I will share what I know here. The research started as an effort to measure the devastating effect of AIDS on African workers in 2001. Tea estates in Kericho, Kenya, were chosen for field research because tea plantation owners, since the British colonial days, have kept meticulous record of individual plucker’s harvest as they are paid by weight. Each plucker functioned like a freelancer; with daily harvest by weight, absenteeism registered. This payroll record over-layed with the same meticulous health record that dates back decades from plantation clinics provide a window into the productivity of workers with the onset of AIDS.

The trend lines was not surprising to the researchers and companies who allowed access to the data, proofing AIDS devastates people long before it finishes them off. Simon said the companies took a huge step being the first private sector provider of antiretrovirals in all of Africa, they should feel good about their initiative. Then in 2004, PEPFAR happened (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). President George W. Bush, persuaded by humanitarian arguments, pumped billions of dollars into fighting AIDS in Africa, indirectly made available antiretroviral drugs to afflicted workers.

By 2006 with enough data, Simon and his team confidently saw a reversal in trend. Although questions remain, but there’s little doubt that HIV-infected workers are able to return to the same work and level of productivity within seven months of treatment. And it seems that the next step is using all this data and research to translate to policy that will benefit both workers and employers. Monique Wasunna, a physician who was the acting director of Kenya Medical Research Institute said, “If you treat your people well, they live longer, they produce better results, and it’s less expensive to do that than let them slip into illness and death.”

And the research team ended the report on a hopeful note that many will listen.


Click here to watch and read more about the Kenyan tea plucker research project.

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.