Highlights: Fury at Bangladeshi tea workers’ static wages; concerns that COVID-19 pressures will increase risk of forced labour; Finlays sued over tea workers’ back-injuries and quizzed over mechanical harvester operator pay.
Image: A tea harvester wraps blades around her fingers before starting a day of work in Jiayi, Taiwan, May 7, 2021. ANN WANG/REUTERS Published in Euronews.green
NEW THIRST TRUSTEE
THIRST is delighted to welcome a new Trustee to the Board. Aarti Kapoor comes to THIRST with a strong track record in human rights and responsible business. Based in Bangkok, she is the founder and Executive Director of Embode, an international consultancy focused on human rights in business supply chains, child rights and protection as well as leadership development in non-profit organisations. Aarti is qualified as a lawyer in the UK and the US, and has almost 20 years of technical experience responding to human trafficking, forced labour, child exploitation, child labour and other related issues, particularly in the UK, Southeast Asia and Africa. Aarti will not only bring a great deal of cross-sector learning to THIRST, but will also enhance the development of THIRST itself.
TEA SECTOR HUMAN RIGHTS IMPACT ASSESSMENT
A meeting of technical advisors to the HRIA took place in October, demonstrating the extraordinarily valuable pool of expertise and resources THIRST is lucky enough to have access to through them. They come from civil society, academia, law and several sections of the tea industry itself, as well as representing a good geographical spread. We are, however, keen to invite more advisors from the African subcontinent; we would welcome introductions to – or applications from – people with expertise in human rights in the African tea sector. The literature review for the HRIA is underway and will be further developed over the next few months. We aim to publish a report on this phase in the New Year. Please do get in touch with THIRST if you are, or know someone who is, interested in this voluntary role.
Tea News Summary
Concerns have been raised that the blind implementation of four controversial labour codes, if not handled carefully, may exacerbate modern slavery in India. The “downward pressure on wages” cited in a 2019 ILO report which gives the example of forced labour in the tea industry, has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The study found that labour exploitation on tea plantations was driven by low tea prices and rising input costs, including machinery, petrol, diesel, and labour. The opinion piece concludes “Since COVID-19 crisis and subsequent economic downturn have pushed millions into…extreme poverty, India needs to be extra alert on the issue of forced labour” and recommends labour-centred economic recovery policies such as “strengthening labour inspection, addressing socio-economic vulnerability, providing for fair recruitment, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and generally promoting decent work.”
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Hundreds of people in Kenya who say picking tea for UK supermarkets and brands – including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Starbucks, the Co-Op and Bettys and Taylors Group – has left them with agonising back pain, are suing Finlays, their UK-based employer. If successful, this case will set a precedent that “British companies cannot harm their workers abroad for the benefit of profit,” according to a representative of Hugh James law firm.
A vaccination programme in 624 of the 800 odd tea gardens of Assam, has reportedly “successfully come out of the initial hiccups” and has reached “the milestone of inoculating 100 crore lives”. Despite the challenges of a weak health infrastructure and low literacy rates in tea gardens, “7,69,183 people from the tea garden community received their first while 1,42,883 people have got their second dose of the Covid vaccine.” The report claims that the chowkidar [watchman or gatekeeper] of the labour lines [acommodation] “played a pivotal role in creating awareness and disseminating information.”
Bangladeshi tea workers’ representatives abstained from voting on the wage board’s final recommendation on the minimum wage structure for the tea workers. Current wages had been fixed for 2019 and 2020 through an agreement between the Bangladesh Tea Association and Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (the tea workers’ union), and tea workers were “surprised and shocked” that these had not been changed… “If we recalculate the wages with the subsidies for ration added to the cash pay, a tea worker gets less than Tk 200 a day.” However, it seems that tea garden owners have included “houses given to workers, equipment required for plucking tea leaves, overtime pay, owners’ contribution to the provident fund, medical expense, pension, education cost of the children of tea workers, labour welfare programmes, and even the incomes of the tea workers generated from growing vegetables, fruits and raising cattle on the land leased from the government for tea production” in their wage calculations although “Section 2 (45) of the labour law does not allow the employers to monetise these and to add them to the wages.
A CITU-led workers’ movement in India‘s West Bengal has been more successful, reportedly helping tea garden workers to secure a 20% bonus in a single instalment.
James Finlay tea company has been questioned on how it determines the rate of payment for mechanical tea harvesters in Kenya “The Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee accused the company of taking advantage of a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to exploit the harvesters.” Finlays says it “currently pays a rate of Sh15.32 per kilo of harvested tea… This means the daily wage is Sh689 [approx. $6 USD]” The UK-based Finlays has now fully mechanised tea harvesting and downsized its workforce to 5,000, making 7,000 mostly female hand tea pluckers redundant. The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (Kpawu) accused Finlays of “overworking its low-career employees while rejecting the union’s calls to include the mechanical tea harvesters in the CBA.”
SMALL TEA GROWERS
Small tea growers in Kenya recieved Sh21 billion in bonuses in October, which included a Sh1 billion fertilizer subsidy. This is however one of the lowest-paid out in recent years, despite the recent radical reforms of the industry. A troubling measure of this reduction in the bonus is the reduced number of sex workers reportedly arriving in a particular tea growing area. However, the government expects bonuses to improve next year, when small holder tea farmers will also receive their bonus payout in June when financial year for factories ends rather than making them wait until October as is currently the case. Meanwhile, the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) plans to drop suits challenging the implementation of various tea reforms.
In a bid to boost the growth its ailing tea sector, the government of Sri Lanka has offered free tea plants and financial assistance for land preparation to any grower who wishes to engage in tea plantation from next year. It recommends that the tea should be grown on “fresh fertile land” and that “Instead of manual tea plucking, we should focus on tea plucking machines.”
The government of West Bengal in India says it has started to “create additional employment opportunities for workers of closed gardens… as well as hundreds of [returning] migrant workers from these tea estates”. This will include increasing the scale of work under the government’s 100-days work scheme (under which people are offered 100 days work per year on projects such as road-building) as well as “pisciculture, horticulture and floriculture,” financing young entrepreneurs and supporting women to form self-help groups and devise alternative sources of income. A number of women’s self-help groups based in the tea estates are making items such as detergent, sanitiser, masks, brooms as well as decorative products.
In September, the Tea Board of India suspended seven sections of the Tea Act of 1953 ending restrictions on where tea may be grown and who may grow it. This deregulation, which, according to the Tea Board “invites new investment and opens new territory” has sparked concerns about “quality and oversupply due to uncontrolled growth that many fear will lower prices overall”. The organized sector now produces less than half of India’s tea but earns far better prices than the typical smallholder selling raw leaves to a bought leaf factory. The Indian Tea Association (ITA), claims that “The unfettered expansion in tea areas in the past few years has been a cause for the non-maintenance of demand-supply equilibrium, adversely impacting prices.”
In the run-up to a by-election in Assam, India, the Chief Minister has made expansive promises to improve roads, schools, and jobs in the area. He “promised to improve road connectivity, build schools and provide clean tap water at homes for all tea garden workers in Jorhat’s by-poll-bound Mariani assembly constituency…[and offered] Rs 1 crore each for construction of roads inside the constituency’s 40 estates” as well as promising “clean tap water and electricity would be made available at every tea garden worker’s household in the area in the next six months.”
Sri Lanka has backed down from its ambitious plans to become the world’s first completely organic farming nation, reversing a ban on imports of chemical fertiliser. The President total ban on agrochemicals in May was met with strong opposition by the countries farmers, including tea growers. Imports of chemical fertiliser will now continue until Sri Lanka is able to produce enough organic fertiliser for local agricultural needs.
Uganda’s tea gene bank in Rwebitaba has showcased several products produced from tea, including green tea powder and a ready to drink green tea beverage that have been prepared from choice tea clones. A tea research officer at the institute says that “once rolled out, production of this tea will widen the earnings that an estate owner can get from their tea plantation”. Tea farmers will also be trained in dealing with pests and diseases that damage tea bushes and yields.
The FAO has been running farmer field schools in Sri Lanka for women to learn about “family nutrition, planning of home gardens, soil and water management, crop nutrient management, integrated pest management and improving the economic gains of their gardens.” They are “also involved in field schools for tea smallholding and are now spearheading tea cultivation in the area.” One participant reports that “I have started applying practices that I learnt at the farmer field school like intercropping fruit trees, and soil and water conservation. I used to harvest around 10 to 15 kilos of tea leaves a month but now the yield has increased to 70 to 75 kilos.” Participants are encouraged to share photos of the different stages of their crops on a WhatsApp group, prompting “an exchange of ideas, advice and important information.” The platform is also useful for “farmers to sell surplus produce or find buyers… [and] extension officers to monitor the fields under their purview, share information with farmers and receive updates on any pest or diseases identified by farmers in the field.”
Taylors of Harrogate has been awarded with a UN Global Climate Action Award ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) now underway in Glasgow, UK. The company won in the ‘Climate Neutral Now’ category in recognition of its programme to help combat climate change while improving farmer livelihoods and ensure a long-term supply of quality tea and coffee. The company has a tree planting partnership, working with smallholder farmers in its tea supply chain in Kenya through TIST (The International Small Group and Tree Planting Programme) which has to date “planted two million trees with around 7,500 farmers, sequestering carbon and providing secondary incomes, along with shade and food.” Taylors said: “The effects of climate change are already being felt in the countries we source from. Thousands of livelihoods and communities depend on tea and coffee production and we rely on the environment and our suppliers to grow and produce our products. We wanted our projects to make a difference to both the climate and the suppliers we work with where we could.”
Extreme weather experienced in Taiwan over the last two years is forcing tea farmers to find creative ways to keep their crops alive. After surviving a once-in-a-century drought, tea plantations in the mountains of Taiwan have been hit by torrential rain in recent months, causing a chain reaction that is proving difficult to recover from.