Vaccinations reaching tea workers, but lockdowns still affecting work. Small tea growers from India to Kenya experiment with minimum prices. Kenyan tea mechinisation driving joblessness. Girl’s death highlights trafficking from tea estates.
Photo: The Standard
Next TEA Talk
The next THIRST TEA Talk on September 30th (save the date!) is entitled Forests vs Tea. Our expert panel will explore how tea cultivation can impact on forests and how these impacts can be mitigated – primarily from an environmental point of view. But our first confirmed speaker brings a refreshingly different perspective from beyond the world of tea.
Sheeba Sen is founder of Alaap – a not for profit organisation working to bring back the native forests of the Himalayas. Alaap focuses not only on the survival of the forest, but also on the survival of the people who depend on forests – or who could destroy them in the process of trying to make a living. We have invited Sheeba to share her insights on how communities considering cutting down forests and planting yet more tea in an oversupplied market could instead create forests and make a living another way.
We will keep you posted as more speakers are confirmed. Sign up here for regular Monthy Updates and news of TEA Talks straight to your in box.
Monthly Update format
We’ve made a small change to the Monthly Update. This month we are just bringing you just the summary, and skipping the more detailed news listings. If you’d like more detail on a particular story, you can follow the links provided in the summary that will take you directly to the relevant publication. But please let us know if you’d like us to bring back the detailed listings – if enough of you want them we will!
Finally, a big thank you to our Communications and Research Intern, Valeriia Bondar-Chagnaud for doing the lion’s share of the work of putting the Update together.
New Resources on the Knowledge Hub
Valeriia has also been busy updating the THIRST Knowledge Hub – which now has lots more resources to inform your work. Please do keep checking back as we are adding new resources all the time. And do let us know if you know of important resources that are missing or are producing one yourself that you’d like us to feature.
TEA NEWS SUMMARY
HEALTH AND COVID-19
In Assam, nearly 2.17 lakh* of 6 million tea workers received at least one dose of the vaccine as of the end of June, and less than 1% received both doses. To help reduce the impact of the epidemic, the Tea Board of India announced additional financial assistance of Rs 9.19 crore** to the organised tea sector in the North East.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) has urged the government to exempt tea gardens from the next strict lockdown lasting until August 5. Shutting down the activities would impact the 135,000 employees, mostly women, who work in the tea garden adversely.
Kenya‘s Chief Justice Martha Koome will appoint at least three judges to oversee a judicial review of the constitutionality of sections of the Tea Act and Crops Act; and to review ownership, management, and operations of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). Workers say they could lose their contracts without a hearing, or their salaries and terms of employment may be altered by the new Act.
Still in Kenya, Unilever shows clear signs of moving towards full mechanization of their tea operations, dislodging 200 tea pickers. The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union appeal to President Kenyatta and urge to enact legislation to regulate tea plucking by machines for multinational tea firms, thus protecting the livelihoods of the tea pluckers.
In Assam the Labour Commissioner filed several cases against the defaulting 16 tea garden managers to clear the Rs 222 crores dues to the workers, including wages, provident fund and gratuity.
PayPoint India has launched ‘Micro-ATMs’ providing access to cash to parts of India without traditional banks. Initially, these will be rolled out in Assam to cater to tea garden laborers who face a huge problem withdrawing the salary paid into their bank accounts due to the unavailability of ATMs or banks nearby.
South India has seen a growth in tea imports that threatens its domestic supply. The United Planters Association is asking the central government to reduce the import of tea to safeguard the earnings of a large segment of population residing in remote areas. More on this here.
Sri Lanka’s, Minister Kanak Hearth, keen to increase tea cultivation in the country, mobilised private nurseries to provide the necessary 50 million additional plants to 450,000 tea small farmers who produce 75% of the country’s total tea and provide 1 million jobs for Sri Lanka. The Government also invested in micro irrigation systems to ensure long-term water supply for cultivation.
In West Bengal, Sammelan Tea and Beverages company took ownership of Bagrakote Tea Garden. New management promises to pay outstanding wages to the workers and start operations at the earliest after a six-year layoff. It gives some hope to thousands of tea workers from six other tea gardens that have closed since 2015. More on this here.
SMALL TEA GROWERS
Some commentators feel that a stand-off between government agencies and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) could threaten farmers’ livelihoods and socio-economic growth. Added to this is an operating loss of Sh4 a kilogramme experienced by small farmers following the decline of commodity prices. Farmers may switch to other crops if prices remain low (see Climate Change below). To cushion smallholder farmers, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya introduced an unprecedented minimum reserve price for processed tea at the Mombasa auction. Although initially, a large proportion of the tea remained unsold, there has since been a 22% increase in average price per kg. More on this here.
India’s Confederation of Small Tea Growers Association (CISTA) has called on the Centre to set a minimum price of Rs 25 per kilogram to support its 2.5 lakh tea growers. The current price for the green leaf is too low to meet production costs, thus threatening their income and putting them in debt. However, 30,000 small tea growers in Assam’s Biswanat District saw factory closures after the price of green tea leaves was set at Rs 26.72 per kg, claiming that it is impossible to contend with the rising prices of manure, pesticides, vitamins, domestic expenses, education, medical expenses etc at this price level.
Among other news, India’s Indcoserve (Industrial cooperative tea factories) has become Fairtrade certified, which will hopefully benefit its 30,000 small tea farmer members and 16 factories in the Nilgiris region.
INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS AND WAGES
A recently published report by Oxfam India “In Defense of Living Wages for Tea Plantation Workers: Evidence from Assam“, finds that contracting out is increasing in Assam’s tea plantations where only 39 percent are permanent workers. But tea garden employees there will now be covered by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This means that during winter, when the work in tea plantations is scarce, they will be offered other government-paid jobs such as road building.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam, has called for increasing wages of tea garden workers annually. He also supports a change in how wages are paid to the workers moving toward a cash-only payment model. Currently tea workers’ are paid partly in cash and partly in kind in the form of legally mandated housing, healthcare, schools and other facilities. More on this here.
Ten thousand administrative workers in West Bengal‘s tea sector have gone on strike for three hours in demand of a raise – they have not had a salary review since 2014. A union representing workers working in West Bengal’s tea gardens will launch a protest if the demand is not met.
The death from serious burns of a 16-year-old girl – a domestic worker – in Sri Lanka has highlighted the abuse & slavery of children and women, and triggered demonstrations across the country. A former tea worker reports in connection with the case that “thousands of women and children leave tea plantations to do menial work for the wealthy in Colombo.” Civil society groups have strongly criticized the failure to enforce the law regarding the abuse and slavery of children and women in Sri Lanka.
The Oxfam report, Not In This Together, calls for supermarkets to address pressing issues in the food supply chain towards women including violations of workers’ rights across multiple supply chains (including women in Assam tea estates), unequal distribution of value and problems specific to women workers. Another Oxfam report, entitled “In defence of living wages for tea plantation workers: Evidence from Assam”, found that workers received less than one-fourth of a ‘living wage’ of 884 Rs. On average, female plantation workers earn 80% of what their male counterparts earn and in addition, only 7% of women reported having access to maternity leave while only 2% had access to a child care facility. More on this here.
Climate change is having a negative effect on Kenya, the world’s largest exporter of black tea. Drought, floods, and rising temperatures threaten tea plantations where some growers are choosing to grow pineapples instead. By 2050, according to a Christian Aid report, Kenya’s optimal tea production conditions will be cut by more than a quarter, hurting both farmers and workers. More on this here.
* 1 lakh = 100,000
**1 crore = 10,000,000