THIRST News Update – September/October 2021

THIRST News Update – September/October 2021

Kenya’s radical proposal for tea price and  income stabilisation fund. Indian gov set to amend 1953 Tea Act. Thriving Indian tea workers’ cooperative destroyed by commercial interests.

Image: Sandip Saha. The Wire – Women workers of Sonali tea garden, Dooars who later formed cooperative.



TEA Talks
A recording of the TEA Talk: Can tea and forests healthily co-exist? is now avaiable on THIRST’s website. The TEA Talk included a presentation by Sheeba Sen of Alaap, India, on the Miyawaki technique for creating forests where they have been severely depleted, by first preparing the soil so that when the native trees are closely planted in the correct configuration, the forest is further along in its development and so quickly becomes a “self-sustaining ecosystem”. Thwango Ndlama of the Ethical Tea Partnership described a range of initiatives to protect forests in Malawi’s tea growing areas, including encouraging local communities to keep bees. This not only gives them an additional source of income, but also discourages them from chopping down the trees carrying the honey combs (bees also deter thieves!). Sammy Kirui shared information about Finlays’ tree planting efforts in the Mau forest, Kenya, and also how they further protect it by pumping water from the forest into the village to prevent people from going in to fetch water, thus protecting it from damage. All three described how tree nurseries can provide additional income to tea communities, and also how they educate young people on forest conservation. Confuscius said if you plan for a year, plant rice. If you plan for 10 years plant a tree, but if you plan for 100 years educate a child. By educating children about planting trees these three organisations are planning for several hundred years.


Tea News Summary


Health concerns for tea workers in Assam, India, have been exacerbated by the phenomenon of fake doctors managing to get through insufficiently stringent recruitment process for tea gardens. One medical officer explains ““The job of a doctor in a tea garden is not very attractive to most doctors…low pay, poor facilities in the hospitals and threat to personal safety are some factors. This, sometimes, has tea gardens not scrutinising applications thoroughly and appointing those who agree to work for a lower salary.” The North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) asks the Union Minister of State for Labour & Employment to include tea gardens under the Employees’ State Insurance scheme so that workers can access better healthcare.


A recent survey of 100 female tea plantation workers in Bangladesh demonstrated that women lack access to clean water and sanitation facilities, which causes long-term illnesses such as urinary tract infections. This also means that about 50% of them experience problems with maternal health. The concern about toilets and water for workers is an easily solvable problem. It can be addressed by the work of the public health department, the Bangladesh Tea Board, and Tea Union members. However, it needs to be raised with tea garden owners and managers as well. There are 135 registered tea gardens in this region, which employs 46,450 registered female workers and 15,153 casual female workers.

In Malawi, in the wake of the country’s unprecedented number of sexual offences over the years, Transform 2 Excel – a corporate learning and development firm – has announced that it would undertake a market study in some of the country’s largest companies to determine the scope and severity of sexual harassment. British law firm Leigh Day has represented women from two tea estate plantations in two separate cases. According to Leigh Day lawyers who represent the women claimants say there is still a systemic problem of male workers at plantations abusing their positions of power in relation to the women working under their supervision with rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual coercion and discriminatory behaviour. The claimants, who are among the poorest people on the planet, frequently succumb to sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs, and this is despite that a Sexual Harassment Policy is in place in most of the organisations surveyed.


Local authorities across the Indian regions have made commitments towards better living conditions for tea workers. In Assam, where marginalised tribal people make up 17% of the state’s population – the Chief Minister announced the formation of seven community-based committees. These will investigate and provide suggestions on issues such as health, education, and skills development and others. The wage advisory committee in Bengal formed in 2015 and remained inactive throughout, gives the deadline of January 2022 to fix and finalise minimum wages for tea workers. This comes at the time when the state labour minister in West Bengal finally formed a six-member committee, consisting of top labour department officials, planters’ bodies, and labourers’ unions, to draught a solution package for the long-pending minimum wage issue of tea garden employees.

While, in the Dooars and Terai plains the majority of tea plantations have agreed already to offer workers a 20% bonus on their annual wages. Nine major tea companies and 25 individual gardens have declared their quantum of Durga Puja bonus for permanent and temporary workers. As per the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, the minimum compensation payable is 8.33%. Many have agreed to pay the maximum rate of premium at 20% – although the intention to pay this in two instalments was contested by unions. However, 20 “sick” and closed gardens in Jalpaiguri have been “given a waiver” on paying the 20% bonus

Twenty-five tea gardens – 15 of ATC and ten others of Golaghat and Tinsukia districts – have not cleared the arrears dues of retired tea garden labourers. The Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (ATTSA) submitted an affidavit before the commission. The ATTSA said that the State Government had allocated Rs 99 crore for 15 ATC gardens to pay the arrears dues of retired tea garden labourers. “However, the retired labourers of ATC gardens are yet to get Rs 18 crore,” the ATTSA said. A judge ordered the tea gardens to clear the dues before October 1, 2021.

While female tea workers in Sylhet Division of Bangladesh lack essential sanitation utilities, the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Forest distributed Tk 5,000 in cash to each of 1,879 tea workers under the Tea Workers Livelihood Improvement Program implemented by the Social Welfare Department. He also handed over the keys of newly-built houses worth Tk68 lakh among 17 families.


In Kenya, for the second time, the government tries to regulate brokerage fees. Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya said they would introduce a new regulation to cut a 0.5% brokerage commission and form a reserve fund. The reduction of management fees from 2.5% to 1.5% will also be affected in November. These reduction measures will save smallholder tea factories an estimated Sh1billion annually . Meanwhile, a 40% spike in smallholder tea prices has been recorded at Kenyan auction suggesting that reforms aiming to fix a minimum reserve price may finally be paying off.

The government has ordered an audit of all Kenya Tea Development Agency factories to ensure small-scale farmers are not unfairly exploited and take measures to correct this if cases are identified. The auditing will also serve to find and eliminate any problems relating to overlapping roles

Still in Kenya, farmers will finally receive an increase in green leaf payments after the Limited Board of Directors of Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) announcement. The pay rise, KES 20 per kilo of leaf supplied, will be retroactive to July 1, 2021. This comes along with the announcement that KTDA will pay a similar bonus to tea workers to last year, justifying the lack of an increase by the challenges the factories faced and increased labour and energy costs.

India’s Nagaland authorities and private businesses are promoting tea production in the region, promising that it will bring “employment and economic prosperity” to many.

The Tea Board India (South) has disbursed Rs 533 lakh to 1,120 beneficiaries under various schemes during the second quarter of the ongoing financial year. While Rs 181.5 lakh was used to offer subsisdies to 13 big tea growers under the plantation development scheme, another Rs 139.2 lakh was used to offer subsidies to 630 small tea farmers under the same scheme.

Small tea producers in India’s Nilgiris area will soon be able to take advantage of government incentives to open speciality tea stores and micro tea factories. The subsidies will be distributed to 275 small tea growers who purchase battery-operated harvesters and trimming devices. Six redundant small tea growers and tea producers were awarded no objection certificates by the Tea Board to open 400 square foot tea shops. In addition, two tribal self-help organisations would obtain a 50% subsidy to start small tea factories.

After discovering that its soil was particularly suitable for tea cultivation, the Bangladesh Tea Board has sought to boost the region’s economy by helping 82 farmers in Bangladesh’s Lalmonirhat district of Rangpur division to grow tea on 121 acres of plain land. Since 2015, with advice and overall support of the board, tea farmers in the region began to expand cultivation…the board has ensured vehicle support, for which farmers have to pay the fuel cost and driver hire charge, enabling transport of 1,700-2,000 kgs of tea leaves, Khan said. “We are providing free assistance of various agricultural tools, including shallow machines, to the farmers who are interested in tea cultivation. They are also provided free fertiliser and pesticide assistance. Farmers are always advised and guided about the care of tea gardens,” he added.


A committee, appointed by Kenyan Agriculture Cabinet Secretary has made radical proposals for the establishment of a Tea Price and Income Stabilisation Fund to cushion farmers from fluctuations in the international market The Fund will track and monitor tea prices and decide how much to pay farmers during price volatility and boom periods to protect farmers from price shocks. Several smallholder factory directors expressed concern that government technocrats would use the farmers’ resources to starve the auction of produce and drive-up prices.

The Indian government is moving towards amending The Tea Act, 1953, “to make it more relevant and effective in the current global scenario.” A new panel constituted by the Union ministry of commerce and industry has been appointed to review the legislation. It is seeking views of the tea producers and manufacturers’ associations on its relevance in controlling/increasing production and exports of tea.  The president of the small tea growers’ umbrella body Cista, said: “We cannot restrict production. We should stress on enhancement of internal consumption and exports. Most of the sections of the Tea Act, 1953, are now irrelevant. We want an industry-friendly Tea Act without any licencing bar for ease-of-doing-business.”

According to the secretary-general of the National Coffee and Tea Association of Nigeria, the country is missing out on revenue from tea (and coffee) due to value-adding processes being taken out of the country. He says “if we have the capacity to meet the local market and export it, in tea production alone, Nigeria could reap better benefit, such as poverty reduction, employment through the value chain-production, processing and packaging. It would be able to create more than 10 million jobs if it is harnessed to it potentials.”

The import and export policy on tea between India and Nepal has long been debated. Indian tea growers maintain that Nepal’s lack of protection for small farmers, who are the main tea cultivators, makes Nepal tea produce 60% cheaper than compared in India, that tea manufacturing in Nepal is not compliant with the Plant Protection Code and FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority on India) Regulation and that there is a high likelihood of child labour in tea plantations.  They claim that a huge volume of Nepalese tea is entering India through legal and illegal means, putting the Darjeeling tea industry at risk. A member of TIPA (tea gardens authority) has lodged a complaint with the Tea Board of India against TCPL (Tata Consumer Products Limited), one of the leading tea producers, for blending and packaging some fine teas that coming from Nepal. Allegations were refuted by the TCPL in their statement. At the same time, another corporation, Unilever Nepal, has been facing allegations from the Nepalese authorities for selling unlabelled, expired products to consumers.

A positive rebound in tea production is expected in Bangladesh after the setbacks in 2020 due to the unfavourable weather, insect attacks, droughts and pandemic. The production is expected to reach 86 million kilos by the end of the year.

The Wire tells the story of workers on abandoned Dooars tea plantation in India who, in the mid-1970’s, “proved that an alternative future was possible” but were ultimately thwarted by commercial interests and lack of trade union support. After the bankrupt management left them without paid jobs or vehicles, workers got permission from the government (to whom ownership of the estate had reverted) to pluck the tea. They formed the Sonali cooperative, and – rejecting the traditional hierarchical management model – women workers decided on the division of labour and how the work would be organised, they started educating themselves and instigated a cooperative milk production unit alongside tea production. Absenteeism, a huge problem on traditional estates, became non-existent and the business thrived. But a combination of legal and business onslaughts saw the smoothly-running cooperative destroyed, its members criminalised, the estate closed for two years and reopened along traditional lines.

The African continent continues to pursue its efforts to increase trade relations with Pakistan, the largest Asian buyer of African tea.  A recent announcement by the Rwandan officials that Pakistan would soon purchase Rwandan tea directly gives hope to farmers at stable and better prices. The current export method is through Kenya’s Mombasa tea auction reducing profit margins and often the quality of the tea. The new agreement will provide a stable market for Rwandan tea producers, allowing them to provide their products directly rather than through third parties.  Nairobi and Islamabad agreed to end the decade-long tariff war that saw Pakistani authorities levy an attestation fee of 0.5% on Kenyan tea imports. Kenyan tea farmers will be saving Sh200 million (USD2,200,000) each year due to this agreement


The Tinsukia District Small Tea Grower Association (TDSTGA) in India has devised an innovative method for pest control in their respective tea gardens; they will plant the saplings of varieties of fruit trees in their tea gardens to attract birds that will then also eat the pests. The TDSTGA will plant 60,000 samplings of various fruit trees within a week.

Still in India, Tech companies are beginning to disrupt the traditional tea industry. ‘TeaOrb’ launched a global F&B marketplace that claims to “provide consumers worldwide with high-quality, affordable teas from India while also claiming to create sustainable working conditions for small tea workers and achieving a fair price at auctions”. Mainly organic small tea growers and speciality tea manufacturers which traditionally do not use machinery offer their goods on the platform.