THIRST News Update – February 2022

THIRST News Update – February 2022

Highlights: Finlays’ Kenyan employees win right to hear work injuries case in Scotland. India proposes new Tea Act as 1953 Act no longer reflects reality.

Image: Press-TV: File photo shows famers harvesting tea in farm in the northern Iranian province of Gilan.


THIRST is delighted to welcome Alysha Shivji to the team that is working on the Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector. Alysha is a Doctoral Researcher in the Business and Human Rights Catalyst at the Alliance Manchester Business School critically investigating the right to access remedy for business-related human rights abuses with a focus on the agrifood sector. Until the end of March, she will be supporting us on the research and drafting of key sections of the literature review and updating the Knowledge Hub.

If your organisation has recently produced reports or resources on human rights or tea workers and farmers or the environment in tea production areas, or if you know of recent publications, please contact us to let us know so we can add them to the Knowledge Hub. 

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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. Please contact THIRST if you spot any factual errors or would like to raise any other issues connected with the Update.

In this month’s summary:


Finlays’ Kenyan employees win right to hear occupational health case in Scotland

“Representatives of hundreds of Kenyan plantation workers have won a bid to take a multi-million-pound negligence action against a Scottish tea firm”. The lawsuit argues that “workers were exposed to conditions that would clearly be harmful, resulting in permanently damage to their spines” due to “a routine practice of company representatives administering pain-killing drugs to employees who requested them without asking why they needed them…” Tea-pickers were reportedly paid “£25 a week for up to 12 hours in a six-day week and expected to carry up to two stones (12 kilos) of the pickings on their back for over half a mile of rough and hilly ground and slopes… A Scottish orthopedics professor who examined workers “found evidence of injury to workers’ spines, ageing their backs by as much as 20 years”. (Herald Scotland

[Other tea companies operating similar systems must be watching the case carefully, as presumably it could set a precedent allowing tens of thousands of workers across the tea growing world to bring similar cases. THIRST recommends that they pre-empt this by urgently reviewing their occupational health and safety policies and practices to ensure workers are not being put at risk of injury.]

Tea Act reforms in Kenya… and now India

Following last year’s tea act reforms in Kenya, the Indian Tea Board has announced a proposal to bring in a new act – the Tea (Development and Promotion) Bill, 2022 – to replace the Tea Act of 1953. The proposed reforms include changing the remit of the Tea Board, so that it “can act as facilitator for optimising the development, promotion and research in tea industry and help in improving production, export and quality of India tea.”  Its objectives include ensuring fair prices for growers, supporting small tea growers and “safeguarding the interests of tea plantation workers.”  (Tea Biz) Trade Unions and other civil society actors criticised the short window offered for comments. The announcement was made on January 7th with an initial deadline for comments by January 21st. This was later extended to the 28th*. (The Economic Times)

*[The deadline has now been further extended to February 9]

Kenya’s tea reforms last year – including a reserve price at auction – are reported to have “helped the value of the beverage to remain relatively high within the last quarter of the year, boosting the earnings of small-scale farmers and multinational firms.” The government also directed the Kenya Tea Development Agency (a company owned by and providing management services to 600,000 smallholder farmers) to pay farmers half the value of the tea they produce on delivery (instead of the much smaller percentage paid earlier) and the remainder within the financial year.  (Business Daily Africa)

Tea production contracts in some countries and expands in others 

As in Kenya (see January Update), tea farmers in Zimbabwe are abandoning tea for other cash cropsas the price has fallen below the cost of production (All Africa). Meanwhile, other countries have been boosting their tea production. Iran‘s government has provided cheap loans to tea farmers resulting in “the amount of land dedicated to tea farming expanded by nearly a half in the past eight years”. (Press TV). In Bangladesh, too, according to the Tea Board Chairman, “[a] new agricultural revolution is taking place” with record tea production raising hopes that the commodity could alleviate the country’s dependence on the ready-made garment industry.  (Yeni Safak) The increase in output is ascribed to “expansion of tea cultivation, increasing investment, use of new technologies and government initiatives”(The Business Standard).

Government support for tea workers and farmers

In India, ahead of the Assembly elections in Bengal and Assam, representatives of tea associations are debating how to spend 1 billion Rupees allotted by the central government for the welfare of women and children in the tea sector. Suggestions include “more doctors in the tea gardens… a central hospital for free treatment to the tea population… mobile health service and improvement of schools, Integrated Child Development Services centres and crèches located in tea estates.” (Telegraph India). Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s government has approved 40 billion Sri Lankan Rupees as compensation for paddy farmers whose crops were damaged as a result of switching suddenly to organic fertilizers when the government banned chemical fertilizers last year… Tea plantation workers and vegetable growers whose crops were similarly affected are now demanding compensationg as well. (UCA News)

Low prices, low pay

Small tea growers in the Nilgiris, South India have opposed their cooperative federation, Indcoserve’s plan to invest Rs 700 million in upgrading its tea factories. The local small tea growers society is calling for better prices for green leaves instead, which will enable them to improve the quality of their crop. (The Hindu)

Wages of tea pluckers in Kenya have dropped from between Sh15,000 and Sh20,000 a month to below Sh8,000 a month since the introduction of tea picking machines, and “Hundreds of thousands of tea pickers are now jobless, with some surviving on menial jobs and others engaging in illegal businesses like brewing illicit liquor. Their children have dropped out of schools and colleges due to lack of fees” according to a Kenyan legislator and teacher. (Star Media)

At a recent Catholic church event, a speaker for the tea workers’ community pointed out that Sri Lanka’s “recent economic downturn aggravated the [tea] workers’ misery”.  He said “Our people are still living in crammed line room housing, no matter how big their families are. Our schools don’t have mathematics and science teachers for higher classes. We don’t have enough toilets.” Finally, he highlighted the difficulty of social distancing in overcrowded accommodation and said that child malnourishment is worsening. (The Hindu)

Estate closures and reopenings

A a tripartite meeting has led to a tea estate in In India’s West Bengal reopening after a two-week closure by management “alleging indiscipline among some workers and trade union leaders”. The estate’s 750-odd workers will not be paid for the period of the closure, but wages due to them for an earlier fortnight will be paid. Ten other gardens in north Bengal remain closed. (Telegraph India). A proposal to enrol the workers on this estate in a government employment scheme during the winter when no tea is produced was opposed by trade unions. (Telegraph India).  Tea workers in Assam protested against the estate they and their families had worked on for generations being uprooted and redeveloped as an international airport. Workers urged the Deputy Commissioner to include the labour organisation as well as owners in discussions on the issue. (Barak Bulletin)

Flood to drought – impacts of climate change

The climate crisis continues to impact on Kenyan tea production as heavy rains and hailstones destroyed crops in the North Rift region.  One tea farmer said “We normally experience hailstones annually between June and August, but this indicates the change of climate we have observed for the last two years”  (The Standard). But at the other end of the scale, drought is also a threat, and farmers are being encouraged to “replace moribund tea [over 50 years old] with drought-resistant, high yielding clones” (The Star)