Companies step in as lives ruined by climate emergency & COVID-19. Experts debate woke-washing & certification. Workers fight on for decent wages, housing, job security. Children trafficked in Sri Lanka & Assam.
Image: Workers’ protest continues in Sri Lankan rehabilitation camp in Kambamala tea estate. Mathrubhumi
TEA Talk: Can tea and forests healthily co-exist?
Thursday 30th September, 2021. 10.30-12.30 UCT Book your place now
As we get closer to COP26, when world leaders will re-examine our goals to tackle the climate emergency, our next TEA Talk addresses the interface between forests and tea.
Humans and forests have had a centuries’ long love-hate relationship. Forests have been a source of food, shelter and income. But they can also be treated as obstacles to commercial agriculture. Our exploitation of these planetary lungs has often gone too far. Tea cultivation frequently means deforestation as land is cleared to make room for the crop and trees are felled to fuel tea factories. And the loss of forests can have a devastating effect on the climate which then impacts on tea and the people who grow it…
But tea companies can become caretakers of their neighbouring forests or grow their own trees for more sustainable fuel, forests can be “created” and the communities that depended on them can find alternative livelhoods.
Join the TEA Talk to hear how these important issues are being tackled in Asia and Africa – and bring your own experience to share.
Sammy Kirui – Corporate Affairs General Manager at Finlays in Kenya. He will talk about the company’s efforts to conserve the Mau forest adjacent to its tea estates.
Sheeba Sen – 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.
TEA NEWS SUMMARY
Health and Covid-19
In Bangladesh, the pandemic has dramatically altered tea workers’ lives who already lack fundamental rights and dignity. They are not eligible for adequate compensation when infected by Covid-19, and the tea estate managers are reluctant to test them for fear of quarantine and high costs of getting the tests. Right activists have urged the Government to take action to raise their living standards.
The corporate sector is stepping in to help – for example in Sri Lanka, as the country is experiencing an unprecedented health crisis, Ceytea Tea Factory, a subsidiary of Unilever Sri Lanka, continues to grant healthcare support. As well as donating to the COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund, they donated LKR 2 million worth of essential surgical equipment to medical institutes in the Nuwara Eliya region.
Wages & housing
Despite election promises, North Bengal‘s Darjeeling and Dooars government has failed to implement a minimum wage increase to RS 350, leaving 400,000 tea workers in poverty in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. Low wages and the slow vaccination process make life tough for these workers. Meanwhile, after two months of extended negotiations, the State Government of Tamil Nadu region fixed a minimum wage of RS 425.40, that is a RS 80 hike for one lakh workers.
Tea companies count the benefits they provide to workers as part of their wage packet. This includes housing, but it is often of poor quality. Hence the West Bengal government has instigated a housing project for North Bengal’s tea garden workers – although this is being criticised for its slow progress.
A year after a massive landslide decimated a colony of tea plantation workers in Kerala, killing 70 people, relatives of the deceased made a plea to the Kerala high court to allot land and houses in live-able areas. They claim that government-built housing that was promised after the tragedy is situated in inhospitable locations making it difficult for them to lead a normal life.
Child labour and abuse
The death of the 16 year old daughter of a tea worker’s family that we have reported in earlier updates, triggered national outrage in Sri Lanka and lifted the lid on the country’s ambiguous child labour laws and the scale of child abuse that thrives under them. Evidence of repeated sexual abuse of the girl has emerged. The cases of abuse involving marginalised children from tea plantations often go undocumented. Bishop Fernando has called on the Sri Lankan Government to “ensure that the tea plantation community, especially children, can live with dignity, be treated as equal citizens and can enjoy all the rights of other Sri Lankans”.
There is news of girls and women continuing to be trafficked from Assam tea estates too. One daily wage tea labourer describes how, desperate to escape from poverty wages and abuse by her in-laws, she was lured by traffickers into an even more abusive situation as a domestic servant. For the eleven months she had spent at a house in New Delhi, she remained cut-off from the world. She never received the promised salary and had to work for more than 18-19 hours. 56 female minors were reported trafficked in 2019.
Large tea producers increased their dominance during the pandemic as a wave of consolidation and formalisation helped them gain at the expense of regional and smaller peers. The combined market share of the top three producers in the world’s second-biggest market for the commodity—Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Tata Consumer Products Ltd. and Tata Global Beverages-Dhunseri Ltd.—rose by nearly four percentage points to over 67%. Unilever Plc, meanwhile, has kicked-off the sale of large parts of its tea business, which could be valued at about 4 billion pounds ($5.6 billion).
Unilever is one of the companies criticised by Vivek Ramaswamy in his book ‘Woke, Inc.: Inside the Social Justice Scam’, for creating an ethical “smokescreen” that hides its real values. Tea industry expert, John Snell takes a slightly different view. He advocates for business viability over certification. He argues that “the current standards applied under certification and verification schemes are vital for social welfare, health and wellness and the environment but only if the businesses they are applied to are viable.” And feels that “It’s shameful that we excuse our lack of focus on financial viability by patronizing standards that declare, to our customers, that we are doing our bit and yet, truth be told, allow market forces to dictate the prices we pay, irrespective of the knowledge that this does not keep whole farmers and their dependents.”
Despite a global over-supply of tea, traditional spice farmers in Indonesia are switching to tea or coffee production which they perceive as more promising as they can get a more stable income from these crops. India‘s Ministry of Commerce and Industry has suspended several sections of the 1953 Tea Act controlling tea production volumes. This removes the bar on the expansion of estates and grant of permission to grow tea on a ‘non-tea land’ which, in any case have been widely flaunted, according to an official “particularly in the North-East, leading to indiscriminate rise in production. Now there is very little land left to be utilized for plantations.” For small tea growers, the cost of production is much lower than that of organised tea industry, which bear fixed labour costs. Labor accounts for around 70% of their total cost.
The UN has criticised the UK for failure to redress colonial-era landgrabs in Kenya…The Kipsigis & Talai clans of Kericho county, Kenya were brutally evicted by the British army between 1895 & 1963 to make way for lucrative tea plantations owned by white settlers.
Thousands of jobs may be at risk after the largest tea-producing company in the world, McLeod Russel India Ltd., faces insolvency proceedings for alleged loan default. The company has 31 tea estates in Assam Valley and two in the Dooars region of West Bengal.
If its estates close, Mcleod Russel tea workers may need a similar solution to that being offered in the Tripura region, where officials confirm that they will form a cooperative and take further steps to rejuvenate the tea industry and provide needed assistance to private estates, which are facing loss or minimal productivity.
Otherwise they may be left facing the same fate as workers of the Kambamala tea estate in Kerala who are continuing to protest and failing to make any progress on the reinstatement of the jobs they lost in July.
Mcleod Russel – like other tea companies in the region – have been facing stagnant prices plus lukewarm global demand, deficit rainfall and the Covid-19 pandemic which has left Assam’s tea industry more broadly in distress, dropping production by 14% in 2020. To tackle these problems adequately, the largest Trade Union of tea workers in Assam are demanding the establishment of a state tea ministry.
The solution to the perennial tea price issue has been addressed in Kenya where, after a slow start, the tea market continues to positively embrace the Government’s intervention to stabilise prices on the commodity at Mombasa auction. The price improvement will sustain tea farming and eventually give better earnings to farmers. KTDA says that the factories it manages are exploring ways of reducing operational costs, including instituting energy-saving measures and installing more efficient tea processing machines. Kenyan tea price stabilisation experts are also looking at learning from Ghana cocoa board’s pricing mechanism, designed to provide better returns to farmers.
Narndranath Dharmaraj, former CEO of Harrison Malayalam, provides an analysis of the tea auction system that began in India but has been exported to other countries. He argues that “the prevailing system largely meets the buyer objectives & not that of the seller…that is a concern for the producers…” and that “the history of tea auctions…has had a buyer bias.”
Meanwhile, government intervention in Sri Lanka has meant that a ban on most chemical fertilisers remains in place despite opposition by farmers warning of potential substantial crop losses and food shortages without chemical fertilisers. The government view is that this will help Sri Lanka address the economic crisis it is facing by improving demand on the international market.
The climate emergency causing extreme weather patterns will have devastating effects on agriculture in Sri Lanka, resulting in severe food shortages and consequently social instability in the country by the end of the century. The story in Assam is similar,with tea farmers witnessing 21% less rainfall than the average monsoon period. Dilhan Fernando of Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company told a webinar on the topic of The Business Case for Climate Change Adaptation for Agribusinesses that globally climate change is expected to drastically reduce crop yield by the end of the century resulting in serious food security issues and social instability in the country. But he added, “…we have the tools and knowledge to act in harmony with nature to revive it. The cost of mitigating the climate change is less than confronting it.”
Companies are trying to do their bit to help stem the rate of climate change, as described by Dr Nuwan Gunarathne, of University of Sri Jayewardenepura, who examines sustainable practices in Sri Lanka in his research study carried out on three large scale locally listed tea planation companies.
Taylors of Harrogate have also made efforts to tackle the climate crisis by planting millions of trees with more than 7,000 farmers in Kenya and provided fuel-efficient cookstoves to smallholders in Malawi in their efforts to cut and offset emissions.
The supermarket chain, Lidl, has introduced a labelling system to help customers assess the environmental impact of its tea, coffee and hot chocolate products.
Efforts are being made at the production level too; a tea estate in Assam, Jalinga Tea, claims to have become the only CO2-neutral certified tea estate in the world. It trains its 1,500 workers follow the sustainable method to produce organic tea.
But some efforts to help farmers could be having a detrimental effect; African faith leaders are calling on the Gates Foundation to stop promoting high-input Green Revolution programs, which is being criticised for damaging ecosystems and threatening local livelihoods. 66 per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa now suffer moderate to severe food insecurity.