Building Tea Back Better

Building Tea Back Better

The United Nations is calling on the global community to behave – well, like a community. In its paper ‘Shared responsibility, global solidarity’, the UN sets out three priorities for countries to work on together: First, to tackle the immediate health threat head on; second to cushion the knock-on effect on people’s lives and livelihoods… And third, to learn from this crisis and build back better…”

It’s a phrase that is now echoing across social media, in policy papers, media headlines and in virtual conferences – like the one that THIRST is hosting on June 16th  (see below for details).

Because industries, too, need to act like a community now more than ever. By doing so, not only can they survive this global disaster – but can they can also use it as an opportunity to break out of old bad habits and unhealthy practices and create healthy new ones.

“Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” These are the first words of the constitution of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), drafted in the aftermath of another global disaster, World War 1.

In the aftermath of Covid-19 we could say; “Universal and lasting health and wellbeing can be established only if it is based on upon social justice”. And social justice is something civil society has long been calling for in the tea sector.

Today, the ILO says; “We need to find innovative solutions for the masses of workers and businesses who will be impacted through labour market resilience, support and adaptation to limit the unemployment fallout and the loss of income due to the Covid-19 outbreak.”

What “innovative solutions” can the tea industry draw on not only to protect its workers but to bring about greater social justice?

The 19th century tea estate model established by the British ‘worked’ for nearly two centuries (though at the expense of generations of trapped and impoverished tea workers). But tea no longer commands the kind of prices that enabled tea estates to maintain populations the size of small towns. And society’s tolerance for production based on the meanest of livelihoods for workers is at an all-time low.

On top of the tea industry’s existing economic woes, every link of the tea supply chain has now been hit by the pandemic, from lockdowns stalling harvests, to barred borders preventing transport, to closed cafés and tea stalls around the world axing demand…

If ever there was a time for innovative solutions, that time is now.

And the tea industry, despite its long history and traditional outlook, is not short of examples of innovation. It has trialled new business models; community trading, co-operatives with diversified crops, worker-shareholders with participatory management, small-farmer joint comany ownership, B-corps and traditional companies with ethical investors and employment practices. None of these examples has been perfect – but it is said that perfect is the enemy of good.  Each one is worth examining further to find out what could work best in each context.

It has experimented with new technologies from harvesting and automatic weighing machines to facial recognition software for tea pluckers, from blockchain tracing of tea origins to on-line retailing.

It has also made forays into new approaches to purchasing and pricing, including the price discovery tool for identifying scope to increase worker wages, tea swaps to help stabilise tea farmer incomes, and community trading models premised on fairness. Could it also introduce a floor price for tea that would cover a sustainable cost of production?

While traditional social dialogue has struggled to find its truest form in the tea sector, it has explored new forms of social dialogue in the shape of community development forums and women’s water committees – and has sometimes had social dialogue thrust upon it, such as Kerala’s Pempilai Orumai – Women’s Unity – movement. It is notable that all these new approaches are characterised by a focus on women – who dominate the tea workforce, in numbers if not yet in influence.

The UN paper highlights the post-pandemic choice that will face us: “…go back to the world we knew before or deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to this and future crises.” To do this, it says “we must learn the lessons of yesterday, so [we] are better prepared for the days to come.”

Some of the tea industry’s key “lessons of yesterday” are documented in THIRST’s literature review, Human Rights in Assam Tea Estates – The long view. The problems of low wages, poor housing, sanitation and healthcare for workers are now well known and extend far beyond Assam.

Instead of continuing to deny them, the tea industry needs to acknowledge them and have the courage to move forward and embrace new ideas to overcome them. What seemed unthinkable before the pandemic must now be placed squarely on the table. And the fall-out from the pandemic could provide the impetus it needs. We can and should move from social distancing to social dialogue, from isolation to inclusivity, from PPE distribution to fairer value distribution…

Because, as the UN paper concludes, it is only by “building more equal and inclusive societies” that we will become “more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other challenges we face.”

To explore these innovative solutions join THIRST’s virtual Roundtable meeting ‘Building Tea Back Better – Planning for a fairer, more resilient post-pandemic tea industry’ from 08:00 – 09:30 UTC on June 16th 2020.  Register here.