Highlights: First Tea Transparency Tracker launched; female tea workers more vulnerable to violence; UN slavery rapporteur lambasts Sri Lankan tea workers’ conditions.
Image: Herald Scotland
Two International Tea Days and a Declaration on the Rights of Tea Workers
December 15th was International Tea Day…. Or was it? In 2020, the UN announced that International Tea Day would be on May 21st. But 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. Read THIRST’s blog about the provenance of the original day and the Declaration on the Rights of Tea Workers drafted by representatives of tea workers and smallholder tea farmers to launch it.
Consultancy opportunity at THIRST
THIRST is seeking a consultant to start work as soon as possible. Their role will be to support on Communications and Research of the tea sector Human Rights Impact Assessment for approximately 24 days between January and March 2022. Please find the terms of reference with more detail here: THIRST Research and Communication Consultant ToR.
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Tea News Summary
Disclaimer: The following updates consist of a summary of articles from the media – they are shared in the spirit of learning and do not necessarily reflect the views of THIRST.
In this month’s summary:
- Brain worms, working conditions and COVID-19 threaten tea workers’ health
- Mixed impacts from tea estate closures – and reopenings
- Mushrooming of alternative livelihoods for tea workers
- First Tea Transparency Tracker launched
- Highs and lows of last month’s tea prices
- Wages rise… yet incomes fall
- Government interventions… and calls for interventions
- Support for children of tea workers
- Multiple challenges of female tea workers including greater vulnerability to violence
- UN slavery rapporteur lambasts Sri Lankan tea workers’ conditions
- To meet water & sanitation SDG, tea workers must not be left behind
Brain worms, working conditions and COVID-19 threaten tea workers’ health
Low paid tea workers in Assam, India are raising pigs to supplement their earnings, but are unable to afford proper hygeine, de-worming etc. Without adequate toilets, open defecation is common increasing the risk of tapeworm infection – which sometimes reach the brain. Affected workers have been refused help for costly CT scans and treatment, resulting in deaths. Some affected workers have been sacked as resulting seizures affect their work. (Down to Earth)
The health of tea pluckers in Kenya has allegedly been damaged by being “routinely asked to work up to 12 hours a day without a break, for six days a week, earning in 2017 an average monthly wage of £100… [having] to harvest a minimum of 30kg (4st 10lb) of tea to be paid anything at all”, and carrying the harvested tea on their backs. (BBC). 1,300 of them are seeking to sue their employer, James Finlay Ltd in Scotland where it is headquartered. However, Finlays denies responsibility, claiming that “no decisions about the working environment in Kenya are taken in Scotland” (The Herald).
Users of mechanical harvesters in Kenya are also concerned about their health as MPs from tea-growing counties petition Parliament to “investigate whether the machines comply with safety and health regulations” (Standard Media).
Meanwhile, in the Dooars, India tea associations “have ordered all their member gardens to ban workers who have not received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine” (Telegraph India) in a bid to counteract complacency due to the relatively low number of cases in the area. While in “drive for 100% coverage” in Assam, workers were subjected to various levels of persuasion, including one who was vaccinated “with the help of local police.” (News 18)
Mixed impacts from tea estate closures – and reopenings
In Bangladesh, tea workers whose estate was closed in response to their protests against the eviction of a colleague have reportedly not recieved wages or rations for nearly a month. “about 409 permanent workers of the tea garden along with their 2,000 family members are facing acute food crisis and living on either starving or half-fed”. (The Daily Star).
Unrest is brewing on an Assam tea estate where, again, the owner has “refused to pay wages and deprived [Provident Fund] and other benefits to its workers”. In response, they have “threatened to launch democratic agitation if the garden management failed to resolve the issues.” (Sentinel Assam)
In West Bengal, India, three estates closures had slightly different impacts on workers; on one, workers pleaded for government intervention, saying that eight people had died in the past two months as “People are suffering from malnutrition…” Workers had been trying to survive by selling green tea leaves to bought leaf factories, but this was no longer viable. “Even ration supply is irregular and health facilities are in a shambles” and “jobless workers have nowhere to go”. (Telegraph India) Another reopened in December after management agreed to tripartite talks brokered by the state labour department after a shutdown following 1,240 workers claiming they had not recieved wages, bonuses or retirement benefits. (Telegraph India)
But, there was a different story from a third closed estate, where workers are reluctant to return to their estate if it reopened, since they have found alternative, better paying livelihoods including roadside eateries, homestays and small resorts. They found they could even earn more from selling green leaves to a bought leaf factory plucked than Rs 202 a day wage they would have got on the estate. (Telegraph India).
Mushrooming of alternative livelihoods for tea workers
And speaking of alternative income sources for tea workers, one region of Kenya known for tea and coffee cultivation, is now seeing farmers switch to herb and spices farming. Herbs and sprices are currently in high demand as many believe they can help boost immunity. Herbs can also command higher returns on quantities grown on smaller plots which is important where the norm is subdivision of inherited land; “returns from a quarter of an acre of herbs are more than what a farmer can get from 3.5 acres of coffee”. (Business Daily)
Meanwhile in India, women residents of closed tea estates have been supported to grow mushrooms. Anirban Nandy and Poulami Chaki Nandy are training and supporting women in the commercial cultivation of mushrooms for sale to the hospitality industry in nearby cities. Mushrooms require even less space than herbs and spices – and in fact they do not require land at all but can be grown in the women’s homes. This is particularly relevant since the women are “not legally entitled to use the land where they live for agricultural and other purposes,“ which also means they are not eligible for bank loans. (Telegraph India). There have been growing calls for a change in legislation to grant land rights to tea workers, which are now being taken up by some politicians (Telegraph India).
First Tea Transparency Tracker launched
The Busines and Human Rights Resource centre has called for greater transparency in the tea industry following the publication of the Tea Transparency Tracker, “the world’s first searchable tea plantation database.” The accompanying report highlights “long-standing issues” around human rights in the tea sector. The report’s author, Thulsi Narayanasamy, warned that the upcoming EU legislation on mandatory human rights due diligence means that tea businesses operating in Europe “need to get serious about their responsibilities and fast”. (Food Navigator)
Highs and lows of last month’s tea prices
The price of tea has a direct impact on small tea and on the viability of estates. Prices in Kenya initially rallied when the Tea Act brought in “a market reserve price of $2.43 per kilo of made tea in July and [held] back […] excess stocks”. But they have then gradually fallen as volumes increased in line with the harvest season. For nearly four months until December, tea prices averaged $2.20 per kilo, at one point fetching $2.49, leading to “better earnings for farmers.” (The Star)
Smallholder tea farmers received Shs 3 billion [approximately 27,000 USD] from KTDA in the first week of January (instead of the previous system of disbursements in the third week of the month). They payment is “an increase from the Shs 2.58 billion that was paid for November 2021 deliveries.” (Capital FM) This represents payment of “Kshs. 21 [0.18 USD] per kilo of the green leaf up from Kshs. 16 [0.14 KES] last year for the last six months.” (KBC)
But other comentators focus on the more recent decline in Mombasa tea auction prices and the fact that “Traders… withdrew 2.5 million kilogrammes of tea from the floor in the 50th sale as prices of the commodity continue to falter for the third consecutive week,” adding that a “A decrease in prices has forced many traders to hoard tea to avoid more losses. Unscrupulous traders were blamed for interfering with the prices but the Eatta Secretariat has denied the allegations. (The East African)
Meanwhile, the Indian tea industry is battling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a “rise in tea costs … led by the pandemic-led disruptions”, wage increases and dampened export demand. Sri Lanka’s agreement to pay its oil debts to Iran in the form of tea “may affect the orthodox tea prices which are mostly exported from India.” Chairman of Indian Tea Exporters’ Association suggested that to discourage absenteeism “daily wage should be linked with the productivity of the plantation workers”. (Deccan Herald). But a batch of speciality Indian ‘Manohari Gold Tea’ was sold at ₹ 75,000 (over 1,000 USD) per kilogram, the highest in the year, at the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre. (NDTV)
Wages rise… yet incomes fall
Sri Lankan plantation workers’ earnings have in real terms “significantly reduced” since their daily wage rate was increased to Rs 1000 a day in March last year. This is because plantation companies subsequently “reduced the number of working days and forced them to pluck at least 22 kilograms of tea to be eligible for the full day salary.” This, combined with wheat flour price increases, has led to families struggling to feed themselves. (Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)
Union leaders were calling for the West Bengal government to fix tea workers’ minimum wage at Rs 350 per day (it is currently Rs 202) before the end of December. They also said “tea garden workers should continue to receive fringe benefits as mandated by the Plantation Labour Act” [which has been repealed and replaced with a simpler set of labour laws]. However, a tea association representative said “the rate proposed by trade unions is beyond our capacity. If it is fixed as the minimum wage, a number of gardens will fall sick because of stark disparity between earnings and expenditure” (Telegraph India)
Government interventions… and calls for interventions
The Secretary of India‘s Department of Food and Public Distribution has called on district administration and tea estate owners in the Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu) to ensure that the “8,000 to 10,000 migrant workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and other States” can access the rations that they are officially eligible for under the ‘One nation, one ration card’ programme. (The Hindu). And, in a bid to encourage local consumption of tea and provide employment, Tamil Nadu‘s state government has “purchased 20 vehicles fitted with tea vending machines” which will sell coffee and snacks as well as locally grown tea. The mobile tea stall fleet is operated by Indcoserve, which claims to be the largest tea cooperative federation of small scale tea farmers in India. (DT Next). Also at state level, the West Bengal government’s ‘Cha Sundari’ scheme – a project to “give free houses along with land rights to tea workers in north Bengal” – is now underway. (Telegraph India).
However, it has not been all plain sailing for tea sector stakeholders; the Indian government has revoked the license of hundreds of NGOs for accepting foreign funding, including Oxfam India who spoke out on breaches of human rights of tea workers in Assam. (Newsclick)
Kenyan smallholder tea cooperative leaders are calling on the government to stop KTDA providing cheap loans to farmers through its Greenland Fedha microfinance scheme, undermining their own Savings and credit cooperative schemes (SACCOs). They claim that KTDA “redeem their loan as a check off before they pay the bonuses on the other side…Saccos often find themselves in a dilemma as they do not have money to deduct from as KTDA has already done so, and this is a conflict of interest.” (The Star) Greenland Fedha had recently cut its lending rates to farmers.(Business Daily Africa).
Sri Lanka‘s tea workers whose earnings have reduced despite their daily wage rate being increased (see Wages section above) are asking for government rations, especially as families in which at least one member was employed on a tea estate missed out on an earlier assistance scheme. (Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)
India (where many of Sri Lanka’s tea workers’ families originated) has committed to building 14,000 houses in Sri Lanka’s hill country “but the construction is progressing at a slow pace amid private plantation companies’ apparent reluctance to part with land”. (The Hindu)
Support for children of tea workers
The Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) says its new USD $200,000 partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO) will allow it to “better support organisation and unionisation” of tea and coffee estate workes and informal sector workers in tea and coffee growing areas and help tackle child labour. The ILO’s representative said the organisation recognizes “that trade unions have unique and vital roles to play in the fight against child labour”. (Pulse Live)
A seminar on children in Bangladesh tea gardens was organised by Educo Bangladesh, highlighting the fact that “Bangladesh are the tea garden communities… are deprived of all kinds of benefits” and their children “started working as tea workers with their parents themselves [and] have no involvement in institutional education”. Educo Bangladesh has been working in 30 tea gardens to connect children with institutional education. (Rising BD)
Multiple challenges of female tea workers including greater vulnerability to violence
Marking “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence” in November and December last year, speakers in Bangladesh highlighted the view that “The existing patriarchal social system in the tea gardens keep women away from decision-making activities and make them more vulnerable to violence and discrimination” and encouaged men to “come forward to abolish this culture”. Selina Hossain said that the level of impunity for violence against women in tea gardens is high. Jasmine Akhter, vice president of the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union stressed the need “to educate the women in tea gardens.” (Daily Star)
The event was organised by Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) who also described a range of challenges that women tea workers in Bangladesh routinely face and overcome – many “in clear violation of the labour law” – including longer working hours than men, walking several kilometers both to and from the work area and back and forth to weighing stations, and lack of toilets or washing facilities (Daily Star)
UN slavery rapporteur lambasts Sri Lankan tea workers’ conditions
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, has concluded his visit to Sri Lanka. He concludes that the country’s Malaiyaha Tamil workers, are living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions. He points to the “ethnic dimension” of what he terms “Contemporary forms of slavery.” In Sri Lanka’s case, Tamils “who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago – continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin.” He highlighted “workers’ colonial-era line room accommodation, where up to 10 people live in a 10×12 space, poor sanitation, and the persisting denial of land rights to the community.” (Economy Next)
To meet water & sanitation SDG, tea workers must not be left behind
A roundtable on ‘Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG6): Inclusion of Tea Workers’ in Bangladesh concluded that “Tea workers lag far behind the mainstream in access to clean water and sanitation”. It warned that “it will not be possible to achieve sustainable development leaving these tea workers behind” and called for “coordinated efforts at all levels between the government and non-government agencies for their overall development.” WaterAid Bangladesh’s country director , Hasin Jahan, refered to the “important role in both the economy and tourism” of the tea industry, concluding; “The government, the owners, the local government, the tea board, the workers, everyone must work together. If a worker fares well, business will fare well.” (Prothomalo)