Highlights: Ukraine war impacts tea exports. Severe hailstorms, rain & temperature rises hit Kenyan and Indian tea; new climate-adapted tea varieties & tech solutions in development. Sri Lanka economic crisis hits tea workers hard. Indian tea workers protest low wages & land repurposing.
Image: A weather data device being installed in a small tea garden in Assam. Deccan Herald. Credit: Solidaridad Asia
‘Human Rights in the Tea Sector – the Big Picture’
THIRST’s summary of its literature review, ‘Human Rights in the Tea Sector – the Big Picture’ is now available. It found that despite a plethora of human rights standards, policies and conventions, and a thriving industry, breaches of the human rights of workers and farmers persist across the tea sector. THIRST hosted a multi-stakeholder roundtable at the end of May to discuss the findings.
It was attended by nearly 50 participants, including representatives of tea brands, producers, national tea associations, NGOs, multi-stakeholder initiatives and law firms etc, from Canada, Germany, India, Iran, Kenya, Nepal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Thailand, UK, USA and Vietnam.
The discussion raised issues such as the price paid for tea being unable to cover the cost of sustainable production, the fact that many of the issues raised are endemic to production countries and not unique to the tea industry (although this does not mean that the tea industry should not attempt to tackle them), and the importance of involving law makers in discussions about the changes needed to make tea a fair and thriving industry.
A report on the Roundtable discussion – as well as the full literature review – will be published shortly.
To receive notifications of these and other THIRST publications and events – Contact us.
Tea sector Human Rights Impact Assessment – Phase 2
The literature review is the first phase of a three-year human rights impact assessment of the global tea sector. In Phase 2, which is now beginning, THIRST will undertake a number of initiatives to help us analyse the root causes of the impacts highlighted in the literature review. These will include:
- A global survey of tea producers – the voices of producers is rarely heard in discussions about human rights in the tea sector. It is vital for us to hear their perspective and their ideas about how to address human rights issues while maintaining the profitability of production.
- Key informant interviews – with industry insiders from tea brands, traders, producers, auctioneers, estate managers, workers and farmers as well as technical experts on issues such as international trade, human rights, and gender.
- Field visits – to study at first hand alternative approaches to tea production and trading including alternative business models, community development forums, tea swaps and more.
THIRST invites NGOs, tea companies, retailers, investors, government bodies and other organisations to partner with us on this exciting journey. To find out how to get involved, please contact THIRST’s CEO, Sabita Banerji, for an initial chat. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
THIRST is also available to provide technical advice and guidance to tea companies seeking to improve their human rights policies and practices. Again, please contact Sabita Banerji, at email@example.com to discuss your needs.
Support THIRST’s work
If you find these updates useful, please consider supporting our work by making a regular donation. This will enable us to continue bringing you these updates, maintaining our unique Knowledge Hub of resources on human rights in the tea sector, convening roundtable discussions on topical issues, and conducting vital research into human rights in the tea sector, such as our ongoing Tea Sector Human Rights Impact Assessment. Thank you.
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. THIRST will not be held liable for any such inaccuracies in the articles summarised here or the external links provided.
In this month’s summary:
- Ethical Consumer publishes tea guide
- Impact of the Ukraine war on tea
- Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis
- Support for smallholder tea farmers
- Protests over Assam tea garden land takeovers
- Multiple welfare initiatives for tea workers
- Calls for health and income support
- Kenyan tea: prices up, demand down
- Uncertainty & protests over low/unpaid wages
- India’s new draft tea Bill
- Litigation over historic land grabs for tea
- Innovations to mitigate climate emergency impacts on tea
Ethical Consumer magazine publishes ‘Ethical Tea Guide’
Ethical Consumer magazine has ranked the ethical and environmental record of 45 tea brands. “We look at fairtrade and organic certification schemes, workers’ rights, plastic in teabags, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Tata (Tetley and Teapigs) and give our recommended buys.” (Ethical Consumer)
Impact of the Ukraine war on tea
The war in Ukraine has forced Kenya to find new buyers for the tea it would have sold to Russia (African Intelligence), but India’s tea exports to Russia are recovering (Economic Times) after a period of uncertainty caused by the political sensitivities around Western sanctions on trade with Russia, exchange rate fluctuations and – ironically – the impact of the war on fertilizer prices and availability. Both Russia and Ukraine are major buyers of Sri Lankan tea in normal times the war is having devastating impact on its tea exports and further exacerbating the country’s economic crisis. (STiR) More on that topic below.
Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic’s curtailing of tourism, tax cuts and an overnight ban on fertilizers have combined to generate Sri Lanka‘s worst economic crisis since its independence. The crisis is hitting the poorest hard, including tea workers and farmers. Pluckers on one estate report that “After a month of picking more than 18 kg (40 lb) of such tea leaves each day [they] receive about 30,000 rupees, worth about $80 after the island nation devalued its currency.” This, they say, is not nearly enough to support them and their extended family, and they have had to cut back on food as a result. Soaring food and fuel inflation are making life even more difficult. “I never want to see my kids work in a plantation,” one tea worker said. (Reuters) Another tea worker says: “I know there are problems in the country. But my problem is that rice costs more now, and I am still paid the same. I am trying to collect as much as I can today” (The Print)
Support for smallholder tea farmers
The last months have seen a rise in the number of initiatives across multiple countries to provide support to smallholder tea farmers. In northern Bangladesh, farmers of other crops are switching to tea with encouragement from the government who is looking to increase tea exports. This has reportedly resulted in a tenfold increase in the number of tea farmers in the north, employing over 30,000 people. Government provision of free saplings and being able to circumvent middlemen and sell direct to processing plants, has enabled farmers to make reasonable profits from the crop. (Asia Nikkei)
Meanwhile in India, the Tamil Nadu government has given Rs 5 crore to the 13 industrial cooperative tea factories of INDCOSERVE to enable them to settle outstanding payments to small tea growers . The grant is subject to INDCOSERVE and the tea factories enhancing tea leaf quality. It aims to help them through a financial crisis reportedly caused by low prices, obsolete machinery, and the poor leaf quality. (Indian Cooperative News). Assam’s small tea growers also sent out an SOS, calling for a “Minimum Support Price” for green tea leaves – after prices fell below the cost of production in April. They claim that committees set up to green tea leaf prices are inactive. (Sentinal Assam)
Protests over Assam tea garden land takeovers
India has seen continued worker protests fearing job losses as a result of tea plantation land being taken over for other purposes. These included part of a tea plantation in southern Assam being cleared for a commercial airport, where workers say they have rejected compensation agreements made between management and trade unions. (East Mojo), (Hindustan Times) Similar protests are continuing against a proposed airport in Assam’s Barak Valley (The Logical Indian).
In Darjeeling, tea workers and politicians went on hunger strike against a proposed tourist resort development on Kanchen tea estate which had been agreed between managers and trade unions. (Telegraph India). India’s Land Reforms department became involved in assessing the amount of land to be repurposed, and the Labour Department was called on to address the issue of outstanding benefit payments to workers. As some of the old roads built by the British will become non-functional owing to the upcoming tea tourism project, the DM has directed the Management to build alternative feasible roads in consultation with the residents and workers. (Millennium Post)
Multiple welfare initiatives for tea workers
There have recently been numerous initiatives to support the health and welfare of tea workers in India. These include:
- Six model schools set up on tea estates by the Assam state government to enable tea workers’ children to study beyond primary level. The government plans to build 119 such schools in total (Financial Express)
- Free eye check-ups and spectacles provided to tea communities in Assam’s Terai region by the ITA, Rotary International and Vision Rx Laboratory (The Statesman)
- Financial support in the form of rotating loans for tea farmers in the Tinsukia District of Assam from Salesian Missions (Mission News Wire)
- Free e-learning facilities for tea workers’ children on APPL estates in the Dooars, West Bengal (Devi Discourse)
- In South India, an MoU has been signed to facilitate Research, Extension & Training to promote Horticultural Crops that can supplement tea workers’ incomes. (UPASI)
Calls for health and income support
On the other hand experts in India warned that “Assam is in dire need of accelerating Tuberculosis (TB) tests” and that the “[d]ensely populated minority inhabited and tea garden areas have become most vulnerable to TB in Assam. (Times of India)
Medical experts also called for an initiative to ensure “that all pregnant women of tea gardens get the benefit of wage compensation schemes properly which would reduce the maternal mortality rate by encouraging the pregnant women for regular antenatal and post-natal check-up” and to “create awareness among female workers through mothers’ clubs to stop early marriage, frequent pregnancy and encourage family planning and good food habits during pregnancy as poor intake of food and frequent pregnancy are major causes of maternal death due to anemia.” (Sentinal Assam)
In Darjeeling there have been appeals to allow workers and their dependents to run homestays from their residences in tea gardens, as an alternative source of income. According to the report; “The present generation are educated and most don’t want to become tea pluckers.” (Millennium Post)
Kenyan tea: prices up, demand down
In April tea prices at the Mombasa auction rallied with improved demand and lower volumes offered. (Business Daily Africa). But the floor price applied to Kenyan tea in order to protect the livelihoods of smallholder tea farmers, combined with the seasonal summer drop in demand from traditional markets has led to buyers prioritising cheaper tea from other African countries. (Business Daily Africa)
On a more positive note, a tea incubation centre has been set up at the Tea Research Institute in Kericho, Kenya, to support investors interested in entering specialty tea production. There is increasing demand for speciality tea and it commands better prices. (The Star)
Ongoing uncertainty & protests over low/unpaid wages
Protests over low and/or unpaid wages and benefits continue across India. In Assam, these included workers Apeejay Tea Group-owned tea estates (Times of India), on Margherita Tea Estate (in association with Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Womens’ Association). Protestors cite the failure of the ruling party to honour election promises to increase the wages of tea workers to Rs 351 (Times of India). Impoverished tea workers have resorted to foraging for food, increasing their risk of poisoning from wild mushrooms which have led to a number of deaths. (Ground News).
In the South, workers at Valparai protested over the failure of companies to implement the State government revised minimum wage increase to Rs 425. (New India Express)
The Coimbatore district Estate Workers and Officers Association claims that “tea estate managements formed a syndicate” to avoid the pay increase.
As well as workers in the field, clerical and support staff of the tea industry in north Bengal launched a 72-hour strike demanding a pay rise. The West Bengal Tea Garden Employees’ Association called for companies to “either fix minimum salary or revive the old system of… annual revisions.” Tea trade unions representing field workers are also intensifying their call for a fixed minimum wage rate. (Telegraph India)
The Assam state government has assured tea community leaders and ACMS (Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha) representatives that the minimum wage of tea estate workers would be set within three months. A 50-rupee-(0.63 USD)-a-day wage hike set by the government early last year was contested in the courts by tea companies which prompted the government to reduce the hike to 38 rupees (0.48 USD) pending the court settlement. However, no such wage level has been set for the 600,000 workers on small tea farms, who produce over half of Assam’s tea. Neither do they receive benefits such as housing that estate workers receive. (Sentinel Assam)
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, tea estate workers led by demonstrated over several issues including low wages and discrimination and harassment of tea garden workers.
India’s new draft tea Bill
India‘s new draft tea bill proposes to remove “archaic provisions” (such as needing permission to plant or remove tea and export quotas, licences and taxation) and licenses to “promote ease of doing business and boost exports from the sector.” The 1953 Tea Act will be repealed and be replaced by the Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill, 2022. According to an official, the bill, “recognises small growers and puts emphasis on their training, adoption of new technology, capacity building, value addition” and “safeguards interest of tea garden workers”. It will also make it mandatory for the Tea Board’s actions to align with the objectives of the bill. (Economic Times)
Litigation over historic land grabs for tea
Kenyans who lost their ancestral land during the colonial period have petitioned the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William to “facilitate reparations to the victims”. The letter stated that the petitioners were “violently evicted from their homes in fertile regions to make space for the very lucrative tea plantations that still exist today” and asked for “an apology and a discussion about compensation”, emphasising the urgency of the matter given the advanced age of the petitioners. (Kenyans.co.ke)
Innovations to mitigate climate emergency impacts on tea
Tea growers in both Kenya and Assam have been experiencing severe crop losses due to unusually heavy rain, hailstorms and raised temperatures. These are predicted to continue to worsen in Kenya and so “significantly reduce yields of the cash crop” according to a researcher from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization’s (KALRO) Tea Research Institute (TRI). (Farmers Review Africa). The Institute is responding by training tea farmers on adaptation techniques and developing new tea varieties that are adapted to the changes in climate and “resistant to pests, diseases and other uncertainties”. However, the replacement of old bushes with new varieties can be prohibitively expensive for small tea growers. (The Star)
The Indian Tea Association has sought government help to repair roads damaged by floods and landslides due to heavy rains – which have disrupted the supply of “essential inputs and the dispatch of made teas”. (Economic Times)
Technological solutions to tackle the climate emergency in tea are also being investigated. These include the SDG Partnership Fund’s development of geothermal heat for drying tea in Kenya (Government of Iceland) and Solidaridad Asia’s Smart Agri app which “provides satellite-based data about rainfall, temperature, humidity and weather-related information direct to farmers through their mobile phones.” This will help small tea growers in particular to manage top soil erosion and the washing away of pesticides. (Deccan Herald)