THIRST News Update – April 2022

THIRST News Update – April 2022

Highlights: Women battle sexual abuse & discrimination across tea sector; mechanisation & land sales threaten workers homes, jobs; smallholder cooperatives recieve boost; innovations in carbon transparency and zero-cost tea production.


Image: The Daily Star:  Women on Bangladeshi tea estates battle a multitude of issues, including “malnutrition, stigma, financial uncertainty


‘Human Rights in the Tea Sector – the Big Picture’

THIRST’s literature review, ‘Human Rights in the Tea Sector – the Big Picture’ is near completion. The first phase of our three-year tea sector human rights impact assessment, it includes an overview of the tea industry workings and key players, a round-up of the international human rights standards and conventions, national labour laws, certification standards and corporate policies designed to protect workers, and the sobering reality of human rights in practice for tea workers and farmers around the world.

The report will be released in early May and will be followed by an international roundtable meeting to discuss the findings. Tea workers’ and  farmers’ representatives, industry members, civil society, government representatives, academics, consultants, MSI members and consumers are warmly invited to join.

Please register your interest in receiving a copy of the literature review once it is published and in joining the dicussion at the roundtable meeting.


THIRST Progress Report 2018-2021

THIRST Progress Report 2018-2021 is now available – documenting the first three years of our existence and the journey that we have taken from an individual idea to keeping a thriving and dynamic network of organisations and individuals informed about human rights in tea, and generating discussions on how to create a fair and thriving tea industry for all. Read the report here.

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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:

Sexual abuse and gender discrimination across the tea sector

A judge has upheld the denial of a cost capping application by the British company PGI saying this “would inevitably bring an end to the claim” by tea workers in its Malawi estates of rape, sexual assault and harassment… and would therefore “amount to the striking out of a valid claim by the back door.” (Law Gazette, February 28). The Malawian labour minister has subsequently met the country’s tea association, TAML, to discuss “how they can collectively deal with issues to do with sexual harassment, child labour and also look into compensation issues” (Malawi 24, 28 March).  In a similar case earlier, another tea company, Camellia, not only settled the claims, but has since put in place a range of measures to reduce the risk of such abuses recurring.

Tea companies should be aware that the structural issues associated with these cases of abuse are not confined to Malawi, but are endemic to the sector. According to Leigh Day, who represent the claimants, there is “a systemic problem of male workers at plantations abusing their positions of power in relation to the women working under their supervision”. Other forms of gender discrimination are also rife in the tea sector.

For example, girls continue to be trafficked from Assam’s tea gardens, as evidenced in a report last month about an eight year old girl tricked into domestic servitude. Assam reportedly “has one of the highest rates of child trafficking in the country and it is most prevalent among the Adivasi community also known as the Tea garden community,” with children ending up working in households, mining, hotels, and the sex trade. (NorthEast Now, March 22)

Women on Bangladeshi tea estates also battle a multitude of issues, including “malnutrition, stigma, financial uncertainty, lack of awareness regarding gender issues and lack of hygiene” as well as early marriage and pressure to have more children resulting in malnutrition and anaemia. (The Daily Star, March 08). A two-year UN programme in Sylhet designed to address some of these issues by enhancing social protection for female tea garden workers and their family members” ended at the end of March 31. (The Daily Star, March 4).

But the women themselves should be part of the solution; women like the leaders of India’s Pempillai Orumai movement, or like J Anthonyammal who was elected chair of her panchayat (local council) in Tamil Nadu, South India, last month, saying “Since I have been a tea estate worker for years, I will be able to understand the needs of the workers.” (The New Indian Express, March 08). 

The Unilever tea brand Joko in South Africa sees men as part of the solution too, launching a men’s dialogue programme that “…aims to break the silence surrounding domestic violence through speaking out, reporting, awareness and education”.  The programme is a partnership with POWA “a feminist, women’s rights organisation that helps survivors of GBV through advocacy, skill development, counselling, refuge and legal services.” (Kempton Express, March 20)

Advancing mechanisation and tea land sales threaten jobs and homes

Last month saw a spate of news stories about tea estate closures and the clash between tea workers and advancing mechanisation. In a story that has sadly become very familiar over the past months, management of a West Bengal tea estate suspended work for over 700 workers who had been protesting over unpaid wages and provident fund contributions. (The Telegraph, March 05) Such suspensions deprive workers of pay, creating a struggle for survival. Little has been reported about what is preventing tea estate managers from meeting their obligations to pay workers, but the frequency of such stories seems to indicate a financial crisis in the sector.

The solution sought by some is the mechanisation of the plucking process. The Kenyan government directed Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) last month “to start the implementation of the tea plucking machines in every zone” claiming that “[m]echanical tea harvesting is critical as it will help in reducing the cost of labour, increase earnings for farmers and protect their health”. (Business Daily, March 21) Unions have opposed the move saying mechanisation is leading to unemployment. Local governors agree, claiming more than 30,000 workers of multi-national companies have been replaced by machines and are calling for their reinstatement. Companies have responded that the “massive sackings” have been essential to enable them to remain in business. (Business Daily, March 14).

Another way that tea companies have been responding to financial pressures is to sell off their land, which can put the resident workers out of their homes as well as their jobs. Last month, the Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA) led a protest by tea workers against an alleged proposal to allot tea garden land for the creation of an airport. (North East Now, March 12). Six hundred kilometers away, another Assam tea company has signed a memorandum of understanding with tea workers’ trade union organisations to protect their rights and jobs during the setting up of another proposed greenfield airport on tea estate land. (The Week, March 08)

APPL – reminder of unaccountable DFI failures

The failure of the International Finance Corporation (the investment arm of the World Bank) to conduct sufficient due diligence when financing the creation of Assam’s APPL – in which Tatas sold shares in the newly formed company to its tea workers – has been raised again as an example of development finance institution not being held to account for their failures. A recent UN report cites the APPL case as an example; a 2013 complaint by community representatives on behalf of thousands of Assam tea plantation workers who alleged “inhumane working conditions” on IFC financed plantations was upheld but the noncompliance has still not been addressed. (Devex, 29 March)

Nevertheless, the World Bank and IMF have been urged by the International Chamber of Commerce to help  SMEs – including Kenyan tea farmers – to weather the knock-on effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. (International Chamber of Commerce, March 4)

Government interventions in Indian and Kenyan tea

As reported in earlier updates, India’s 70-year-old Tea Act is being amended and the Tea Board of India being overhauled to become a facilitor rather than regulator. Consultation by the department of commerce with major tea exporters, workers unions, small growers’ associations and auctioneers close on 9 April.  The changes come as falling tea exports are being further hit by the Russia-Ukraine crisis (both major markets for Indian tea). (Livemint, March 21)

Kenya’s Tea Act was also recently revised and the government has been very active in its interventions in the industry since. Most recently, it has ordered an audit of the Mombasa Auction – through which the tea of not only Kenya but several other African countries is sold – “to establish what is hindering farmers from better earnings”. (Business Daily, March 14)

Workers’ say pay too low, managers blame prices

Tea workers in Bengal (The Week, February 28) and Assam (The Sentinal, March 25) have been protesting against low wages and non-payment of wages respectively. The Apeejay Tea Ltd. workers, whose sit-in was let by Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) and Assam Chah Karmachari Sangha (ACKS) trade unions, claim that for the past few months, the company has failed to disburse wages and salaries regularly. The Bengal labour department has asked tea companies propose the minimum wage that they can offer in response to tea trade unions’ demands for a minimum wage of around Rs 350. Both groups are members of a wage advisory committee (The Telegraph, March 5). Meanwhile, the West Bengal government has sought to alleviate pressure on the sector by waiving agricultural income tax on rural employment and education for the tea estates and their workers in 2022-23 (The Times of India, March 12)

Similar problems are reported in northern Bangladesh where, although tea cultivation is thriving, pluckers say the pay is “not adequate for maintaining their family expenses.” Estate owners reiterate that “The situation can only improve if the factory owners pay a fair price for the hand-plucked raw tea leaves” (The Daily Star, March 12). The argument is echoed in Sri Lanka, where estate workers say they do not get the Rs. 1,000 a day they are entitled to “even though the cost of living had skyrocketed & still most line rooms are below standard” and management is responding that they do not have the funds (an assertion contested by unions) and “are ready to pay a higher daily wage if tea prices are above the cost of production”. (Sunday Observer, March 20)

Cooperative creation to empower smallholders 

In two interesting and comparable developments across continents, tea cooperatives were given a major boost in India and Rwanda. In Rwanda, the investors Wood Foundation Africa and Gatsby Africa made 5,000 members of smallholder tea cooperatives owners of Rwanda’s largest tea factory, which the foundations had acquired when it was privatised in 2012. Since then, the foundations have invested over $15 million in the factory and provided “a combination of finance, technical, managerial and governance support to turn the factory business around” by increasing its capacity, expanding tea plantations and providing farmers with technical and corporate governance training. Ownership of the factory is through Cooperative du Thé Mulindi (COOPTHE) and Cooperative du Thé Villageois Mulindi (COOTHEVM), under the umbrella of the Mulindi Tea Company (MTC). (All Africa, March 29).  

Meanwhile, in India, as part of a wider tea industry development support plan, the Tripura State government announced last month its intention to attempt to revive six tea estates that were “abandoned by the owners due to huge losses” by handing them over to new cooperatives, or supporting existing tea cooperatives that are struggling to survive.  1,800 tea workers stand to benefit if the initiative is successful. Significantly, as well as drinking water, electricity, ration cards and healthcare, the government will provide resident tea workers with land, housing, (Republic World, March 16) something estate workers do not typically own. (An interesting discussion about the viability of this initiative took place on LinkedIn).

Existing small tea farmer cooperatives in South India have called for a centre of excellence, agribusiness training, support for alterative crops and Minimum Support Price for tea (The Hindu, March 11), and in Kenya, KTDA has launched a programme “to equip farmers with the knowledge to grow and manage their income. It focuses on small scale tea farmers by training them on quality tea production and crop diversification” (The Saturday Standard, March 2). KTDA is also supporting its 600,000 farmer members to replace moribund tea bushes with a new, more productive variety and is offering the farmers training on diversification to create alternative sources of income.” (The Standard, March 17). However, a commentator has questioned the initiative, suggesting replanting half the plot with the high yielding variety, keeping some traditional varieties and using the rest for food security crops. (LinkedIn)

Greener tea, cleaner water 

A USA tea production company has released an innovative new Carbon Footprint Label that, as part of its “ongoing efforts to fight climate change and increase transparency”, discloses the carbon emissions of each product’s ingredients, packaging, transport and preparation. Numi Organic Tea is encouraging others to follow suit, saying “[t]he more of us that join this movement, the more context consumers will have when considering the environmental impact of their daily habits. Consumers are looking for a way to take action against climate change and we want to empower them with the information they need to do that.”  Numi’s study, with carbon management platform Planet FWD, found that “nearly half of a tea bag’s carbon footprint (46%) comes from boiling water” and that “[t]he carbon footprint of a cup of Numi tea is 86% lower than a cup of conventional espresso”.  (Yahoo Finance, March 08)

Another tea producer aiming to produce ‘greener’ tea is P.K. Kumaran in South India who, after attending a training session by Padmashri Subash Palekar, “initiated a fully-organic zero budget natural farming, that is completely dependent on cattle manure,” using only resources available on the farm itself and sourcing nothing from outside. (New Indian Express, March 09)

Organic farming is likely to mean cleaner water for those that live there, something that is not easily available to all tea workers or farmers. To tackle this problem, WaterAid Bangladesh has recently signed an MoU with consumer goods conglomerate, City Group, to “provide technical support to access safe and adequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene services” for workers on its tea estates. While the company is motivated to “fulfil [tea workers’] rights and needs” it also sees improving their living standards and wellbeing as a way of making them more efficient and increasing their work productivity. (New Age Business, March 3)