Happy International Tea Day! But is it…?

Happy International Tea Day! But is it…?
Photo: Lidl - https://corporate.lidl.co.uk/media-centre/pressreleases/2020/10_12_2020-human-rights-impact-report

Happy International Tea Day! But is it…? Well, yes, kind of…

The day that the UN designated International Tea Day in 2019 to “…promote and foster collective actions to implement activities in favour of the sustainable production and consumption of tea and raise awareness of its importance in fighting hunger and poverty” was May 21st. Not today.

But today, December 15th has been celebrated as International Tea Day by tea producing countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda and Tanzania since 2005.

So which day should we be celebrating? And given the crises that the tea industry is facing – court cases on sexual abuse and violence against women tea workers, plantations closing down due to stagnant prices and rising costs, climate crisis devastating crops – should we be celebrating at all?

At the first (original) International Tea Day, representatives of tea workers and smallholder tea farmers from many of those countries put together a ‘Declaration on the Rights of Tea Workers‘ outlining what tea workers and farmers themselves feel needs to change.

The first clause of the Declaration states “The exclusions and extreme exploitations of women workers, who constitute more than 50 percent of the workforce in the tea sector, shall be stopped forthwith.” It “affirm[s] the principle of living wages”, asserts “the right of joint ownership/ownership to homestead land of tea workers”, advocates for the strengthening of the Social Security net, which should also extend to small growers… and makes many other important recommendations for the industry.

Finally, it “call[s] upon the governments and international agencies (UNCTAD & FAO) to facilitate the creation of an International Tea Commission to promote and strengthen the tea industry, with specific provisions to protect the interests of tea workers and small growers”.

In the 16 years since that first, original, International Tea Day, has anything changed? A lot of the issues covered in the Declaration are still crying out to be addressed. Women are still being exploited, abused and overlooked. Wages are still well below the living wage level. Smallholders are still exempt from social security benefits…

But there are some glimmers of hope. There have been some small shifts that – like small movements in tectonic plates – may lead to bigger upheavals in the future.

For example:

    • Tea companies are starting to bow to civil society pressure to be transparent about their supply chains, so that they can hold companies to account when human rights are breached – but also so they can acknowledge good practice.
    • Investors demonstrated the importance of businesses respecting human rights when they pulled out of the bidding for Unilever’s tea business amid “concerns about working conditions
    • In 2018, the UN established the Confederation of International Tea Smallholders, a group that is rapidly growing and may even replace plantations one day.
    • Tea brands, like ekaterra are making public statements about sustainability and, like Typhoo, appointing responsible sourcing managers
    • Tea retailers are beginning to conduct Human Rights Impact Assessments of their tea supply chains… and THIRST is conducting a Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector as a whole. We are looking at the literature that has been produced over the years documenting human rights issues in the tea sector. We will be interviewing workers, farmers, trade unionists, activists, brokers, packers, buyers, brands and retailers to understand their perspectives and how different priorities may be conflicting. And finally we’ll bring together tea industry stakeholders and experts to figure out what needs to be changed to protect the wellbeing of tea workers and farmers better, and what, pragmatically can be changed…

And by harnessing new technologies and business models the tea industry itself may revive and tea will continue to be the world’s second most popular drink after water, continue to provide livelihoods for millions and taste, health and comfort for millions more.

So yes, let’s celebrate both International Tea Days – the one set by tea workers and farmers in producing countries and the one set by governments – but cautiously and with hope. Because in truth it is only by bringing them – and the industry – together that real change will happen.

Now all we need is for the industry itself to declare an International Tea Day… September 2nd? It’s exactly half way between the two existing International Tea Days…