THIRST News Update – August 2022

THIRST News Update – August 2022

Highlights: Financial crises prompt innovation & alternative use of tea land; gov’s recognise deprivation of tea workers; small tea growers struggle in Kerala, thrive in Kenya; inflation erodes wage rises, machines threaten jobs; tea workers at risk from Covid, machinery & animals; tea sees downpours, drought and green technology.


Image: Alice Waithera. Tea farmers from Ichichi Kangema. The Star. 


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THIRST welcomes a new Trustee

THIRST is delighted to announce the appointment of a new Trustee, Art Prapha. Art  brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that spans three continents; he is currently Senior Advisor (Campaigns & Advocacy) at Oxfam America where he co-leads the global Supermarket Campaign, Behind the Barcodes, to influence America’s largest supermarkets to tackle inequality and human rights violations in their global supply chains. Previously, Art headed the Private Sector team at Oxfam in Thailand where he cofounded the CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood to address forced labour in the seafood supply chains. Art also worked on social enterprise programs to connect women-led, community-based enterprises to the markets. He holds a bachelor’s in Accounting and Commercial Law from Victoria University in Wellington and a master’s degree in International Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Art is currently pursuing an Executive MBA at Judge Business School, Cambridge University and will be starting his new role as Senior Program Manager, Corporate Accountability at the Freedom Fund in September 2022.

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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. THIRST will not be held liable for any such inaccuracies in the  articles summarised here or the external links provided.

Summary of this month’s tea update:

Financial crises in multiple tea origins prompt alternative uses of tea land and innovation

Sri Lanka is not the only tea origin facing deep financial crisis; there are reports from Nepal of tea producers struggling to survive, and in South India’s Tamil Nadu, the tea corporation set up to rehabilitate Sri Lankan repatriates is also facing financial hardship. Although a number of previously closed estates are now reopening with government and investor help, other producers are adopting alternative uses for tea land such as growing vegetables or seeking to allow workers to set up “homestays“. 

Indian tea producers are also innovating with “a plethora of tea start-ups” boosting the quality and domestic popularity of tea, established companies moving into on-line sales direct to customers and Assam’s first e-marketplace for tea sellers and buyers.

Governments recognise deprivation of tea workers and offer support, advice

The governments of Bangladesh, India and Kenya are also offering funds, legislative changes and advice to their respective tea industries. An Indian parliamentary committee is “dismayed to note the plight and deprivation of West Bengal’s tea workers” and has recommended awarding them land rights.

Smallholder tea growers struggle in Kerala, thrive in Kenya

Small tea growers in Kerala are reportedly facing a crisis following a sharp decline in the price of green tea leaves, shortage of workers, and dearth of tea-processing factories. KTDA affiliated farmers have started receiving their annual bonus, with an increase over last year’s payment of Sh21 billion. But these gains may be eroded as inflation rose to a five-year high in June 2022. 

Wage protests continue, inflation erodes wage rises, machines threaten jobs

Rising inflation is also eroding the benefits of a recent wage hike in Darjeeling, leading to calls for the government to fix the minimum wages instead of interim hikes. The Minimum Wage Board of Bangladesh recommended no change to tea workers’ wages, which are one sixth of those of the lowest paid construction workers, and is far below the cost of living. Employees of Bugambe Tea Estate in Uganda have ended a strike against the alleged failure of their employer, Mcleod Russel Uganda limited, to increase their salaries. Kenyan trade unionists says that thousands of jobs have been lost to tea plucking machines – this has become an election issue. 

Tea workers risk death or injury from Covid, machinery and animals

An otherwise healthy tea worker who tested positive for Covid has died in Bangladesh; commentators call for a massive awareness campaigns, coronavirus testing, distribution of masks and sanitiser and physical distancing at all stages of tea production. A tea factory worker is in intensive care in Assam after her hair and scalp were ripped off by the CTC machine as she was sweeping up residual tea leaves for reuse. There have also been multiple reports of human-animal conflict on Indian tea estates.

Downpours, drought and green technology

Heavy rainfall in India’s northern tea belt has led to significant decline crops, while temperatures in Britain were higher than India, halting production on the country’s only tea estate. The Indian state of Tripura has installed its first gas-based tea processing centre and KTDA has opened a fifth hydro-electric power plant for tea processing factories. 


Financial crises in multiple tea origins prompt alternative uses of tea land and innovation

Sri Lankan tea producers and processors are struggling to survive during the countriy’s worst ever economic crisis, triggered by loss of tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic and worsened by the overnight ban of chemical fertlizers by the ousted former president. (BBC News) Although fertiliser can now be used again, its price has increased twenty-fold, in part due to the Ukraine war. Fuel shortages and inflation combined with demand being impacted by impending recession in overseas markets is pushing the Sri Lankan tea sector to the brink and leaving workers at risk of starvation. (Sky News). One small glimmer of potential hope lies in the fact that tea prices have rallied as a result of changes in the exchange rate, according to Sri Lanka’s Tea Small Holdings Development Authority. (News First).

An Australian tea company, Origin Tea is supporting Sri Lankan tea workers by using diesel reserves to shuttle them to and from work, and to fuel generators at the Colombo factory. They have also started a GoFundMe page to help Sri Lankans access basic necessities with $1200 raised so far (they’ll match the final amount raised) and early in July launched #sipforSriLanka, offering to “share a chai with Sri Lankans” for each packet of their Sticky Chai sold at Coles and Woolworths in July. (SmartCompany)

Nepal’s tea producers say the future of its Rs 5-billion tea industry is in jeopardy. They are facing acute shortages of fertilizer which is likely to lead to poor harvests and thus reduced income, particularly for the tea grown at lower altitudes for CTC production which requires large amounts of chemical fertilisers (unlike orthodox tea grown at higher altitudes which does not require them). The government stopped various subsidies to the tea industry three years ago. Many tea farmers have started switching to other crops. More than 60 percent of Nepal’s tea workers are women, and smallholders account for a majority of the production. (Kathmandu Post)

India‘s Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited (TANTEA) set up to rehabilitate Sri Lankan repatriates is in deep financial crisis, leading to a decision to has decided to cut production and other costs soon after 500 temporary workers were terminated. It plans to employ one worker per acre and double production per acre  “by properly maintaining the garden.” However, there are calls instead for it to turn over the land to workers so they can grow their own crops. (New Indian Express

Repurposing of tea land

West Bengal‘s Chief Minister has called for amendments to policies to allow tea estate workers to set up “homestays” or guest houses in tea estates. Although the Bengal government allows lessees of government-owned land to utilise 15% of it for tourism, workers have no land rights on the estates – although most have lived and worked there for generations. Most tea estate tourism tends, therefore, to be at the higher end of the market. Homestays run by workers would open up the low- to middle-end of the tourism market on tea estates and provide much needed supplementary income to workers. (Telegraph India)

Women in Bengal have been cultivating vegetables since the tea estate that employed them closed in 2013. Others had sought work elsewhere, plucked and sold tea leaves independently or found work at nearby tea gardens. But closed estates like this become “a breeding ground for human traffickers” according to one NGO coordinator. As well as providing nutrition, growing vegetables “can make [women] economically independent by selling the crop in the local market,” says one of the women. The owner of a local ration-shop where women barter vegetables for other goods says “A sense of community bonding develops because of our kitchen garden.”  (First Post) New investors, the Merico Group, have since been found to reopen the estate and revive tea production. The estate was due to reopen on July 25th. (Telegraph India) Three other estates in the area are also due to reopen with government support (Telegraph India)

A lockout has been declared in a southern Assam tea estate that was partially cleared by the local authorities for a greenfield airport that the Civil Aviation Ministry was unaware of. The lockout leaves about 1,500 permanent and 1,000 temporary plantation workers jobless and employees will not be entitled to any wages, ration and other related facilities. The Daloo Tea Estate Save Coordination Committee carried out protests against what it calls a “conspiracy to affect the livelihood of hundreds of tea garden workers”. (The Hindu)

Innovation in Indian tea

Tea is growing in popularity in India, where “a plethora of tea start-ups have emerged, brewing their own formulas, introducing quirky combos and opening tea lounges all over the country, making it a more premium product than it ever was.” This is partly due to a growing belief in the health properties of tea. (SME Futures)

Indian tea producers, including McLeod Russel, Luxmi Tea and Jay Shree, are moving  into packaging and selling tea direct to customers online. Selling higher quality orthodox tea in this way enables them to retain its freshness and flavour and to improve margins. Some companies, like Dorje Teas, responding to the growing pressures on the industry – exacerbated by Covid – are modelling their business on the wine industry in the 70’s which found its way out of a similar economic decline through selling by subscription. (Business Standard)

Assam’s “first e-marketplace for tea sellers and buyers,” TeaOrb Services Llp, has launched a new tea. TeaOrb is a “for-profit social entrepreneurship start-up, working closely with small tea farmers and estates of India by providing a virtual platform in an effort to ensure fair price”. It also uses environmentally friendly packaging techniques. (PR Newswire)

Governments recognise deprivation of tea workers and offer support, advice

The Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) has asked the government to provide a 20% subsidy to boost exports. This would bring tea in line with other processed and agricultural products and would provide a much-needed boost to the industry. (Dhaka Tribune)

India’s minister of state for commerce and industry says that Rs 200 crore has been allocated to the tea sector for “health, education, skill development, infrastructure for provisioning of welfare services to tea workers, especially women and their children”  In addition, the finance minister has “set aside Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of women and children on the tea estates of Assam and Bengal”. However, plantation owners say the money has not yet been paid out. (Telegraph India)

The Commerce and Industry Minister of India claims that there is “concensus among stakeholders concerned” in the repealing of “archaic” laws on tea and other traditional plantation crops, and the introduction of new legislation. He says the changes are “aimed at promoting ease of doing business and helping small farmers”. The ministrsy says that the changes have been necessitated by “a paradigm shift in the recent decade with respect to the way tea is grown, marketed and consumed”. (Financial Express)

Kenya‘s President, Uhuru Kenyatta,  challenged the Kenya Tea Development Agency Holdings (KTDA) to make a long-term plan for “value addition to 90 percent of the tea grown in the country before it is exported,” emphasising the benefits that tea farmers would reap from this.  (African Business)

A parliamentary standing committee on commerce on the plight  of tea garden workers in north Bengal, India, says it is ” dismayed to note the plight and deprivation of the tea workers of Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai region for not being conferred ‘parja-patta’ or land rights on their own ancestral lands which they have toiled for generations.” It  recommends to the central government that a committee be formed to look into the issue and for legislation be enacted to ensure their land rights. (Telegraph India)

Industry also offers support…

The Ethical Tea Partnership and DavidsTea have joined forces to establish a programme  in China to help educate “left-behind” children of tea workers during the summer holidays. “[T]he program provides a safe and nurturing environment for children of tea farmers and workers of the area to benefit from these childcare and educational services while also providing an opportunity for them to bond with their families.” (Yahoo Finance)

Smallholder tea growers struggle in Kerala, thrive in Kenya

Small tea growers in Kerala are reportedly facing a crisis following a sharp decline in the price of green tea leaves, shortage of workers, and dearth of tea-processing factories. The 11 local factories procure only 50,000 kg of the 80,000 kg of green tea leaves produced daily, the remainder being sold cheaply to agents. At the current rate of roughly ₹10 a kg, the average farmer can earn ₹4,500, but needs to spend around ₹67,000 on pluckers, fertilizer and other inputs. One of the region’s 16,000 small tea growers estimates that he needs at least ₹20 a kg to survive. Farmers are calling for the government to set up a factory and to brand and sell the made tea to add value at source. (The Hindu)

Farmers affiliated with Kenya Tea Development Agency have started receiving their share of the Sh37.1 billion final payment (bonus) for the year, an increase over last year’s payment of Sh21 billion. The payment included over half-a-billion shillings as dividends from KTDA Holdings subsidiaries. This is the first time the final payment is being made in July rather than in October. The improvement in earnings have been ascribed to “the reserve price introduced in July, better tea prices, and favourable exchange rates”. (Capital FM). But these gains may be eroded as inflation rose to a five-year high in June 2022 (7.9%), compared to 6.3 per cent in June 2021 with the prices of farm inputs, transport  and food skyrocketing.  (The Star)

Tea workers risk death or injury from Covid, machinery and animals

An otherwise healthy tea worker who tested positive for Covid has died in Bangladesh. He could not be treated at the nearest two hospitals and his family paid Tk 85,000 (including a bribe to secure a ICU bed) for his treatment at the third hospital. The Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union trade union and the Society for Health and Education Development say tea gardens must do more to protect their workers from Covid, saying there is an urgent need for “Massive awareness campaigns, garden level tests for coronavirus, distribution of mask and sanitiser in adequate quantities and proper physical distancing at all stages of tea leaf picking, depositing and processing”. (The Daily Star)

A woman tea worker is in intensive care in Assam after her hair and scalp were ripped off by the CTC (Crush, tear, curl) machine at a tea factory where she was sweeping up residual tea leaves for reuse. The company has paid for the woman’s treatment, ambulance and other expenses, but the incident has raised questions about the extent to which tea factories are complying with India’s Factories Act of 1948 which mandates that workers are provided with adequate personal protective equiment. A similar incident in 2020 resulted in a fatality. (News Laundry) A senior factory inspector has since been suspended for alleged negligence (News Click), and the district administration has instructed the management to appoint a tea safety officer (Sentinel Assam). In two other recent accidents involving factory machinery, one male factory worker has lost his leg (DY365) and another has sustained head injuries. (Pratidin Time)

Human-animal conflict on Indian tea land continues: three tea workers, including a woman, were attacked by gaurs (Indian bison) West Bengal. Forestry officers succeeded in tranquilizing one animal and the rest returned to the forest (Telegraph India). The Assam forest department succeeded in capturing a leopard sighted on tea land there (Sentinel Assam)

Wage protests continue, inflation erodes wage rises, machines threaten jobs

Sixteen tea estate workers and a child, who drowned while trying to flee from police following a wage protest rally in India on July 23, 1999 have been commemorated by politicians and community members on the anniversary of the incident. (New Indian Express)

Rising inflation is eroding the benefits of a recent wage hike in Darjeeling. In addition to land rights, better health facilities and better prospects for their children, “tea workers and unions, …want the government to fix the minimum wages instead of interim hikes.” One tea worker reports that “Wages, medical facilities and housing are the three problems being faced by tea garden workers. Due to inflation, it is getting difficult for workers to sustain their families. Also, there is not a single big hospital in the area. If anyone falls sick, we are forced to travel for at least two hours to Siliguri for medical treatment,”  (The Indian Express). Meanwhile, tea workers in Assam have been protesting at the low quality of the food rations they are supplied with. (Sentinel Assam)

The Central Organisation of Trade Union (COTU) in Kenya says that over 200,000 jobs have been lost to tea plucking machines. Opposition to mechanisation has been taken up as a campaign issue by a presidential election candidate. (Tuko)

The Minimum Wage Board (MWB) of Bangladesh recommended retaining tea workers’ wages at the daily cash pay level of Tk 117- Tk 120 (Tk 200/day if subsidies for food rations are included). This compares with Tk 620/day in rural areas for the lowest-paid workers (helpers) in the construction and wood sector, while experts calculate the cost of living expenses in the Sylhet as Tk 7,750 a month for a single adult. Tea plantation owners claim to be paying Tk 403/day, but have reportedly included housing, plucking equipment, overtime pay, their own contribution to workers’ provident fund, medical expenses, pension, children’s education cost, labour welfare programmes, and even alternative income streams generated by workers in this calculation, contrary to Section 2 (45) of the labour law. (The Daily Star)

More than 2,500 employees of Bugambe Tea Estate in Uganda have ended a strike against the alleged failure of their employer, Mcleod Russel Uganda limited, to increase their salaries. (NTV Uganda)

Downpours, drought and green technology

The Tea Association of India (TAI) says June’s heavy rainfall in the northern tea belt has led to an  11% decline in the crop in Assam, 16.14% in the Barak valley and 21.01% in the Dooars. They say that this, alongside the Rs 30/day wage rise in North Bengal and a 15% drop in prices in May is “affecting the viability of the industry”. (Financial Express)

Meanwhile, Britain’s only tea estate halted production during a heatwave in the county of Cornwall that was “hotter than India”. (South West Farmer)

Tripura, the 5th largest tea-producing state in India has installed its first gas-based tea processing centre, aiming to “help reduce pollution as well as increase production efficiency”. Tripura has 54 tea estates and 12 factories; a mix of public, private and cooperative. (The Indian Express). The State is also pushing for its own auction centre. (North East Now)

The Kenya Tea Development Agency(KTDA) has opened a new hydro-electric power plant (the fifth so far), generating power for tea processing factories. The plant has enabled tea factories to become self-reliant,  providing them with 98.5 per cent of power required for processing tea. The project’s assistant manager says “The water that is used in power production is released back into the river it was channeled from unpolluted, so we avoid disrupting the supply of water to the locals yet still benefit from what we collect.” The agency is also investigating solar power possibilities. (Capital FM)

The Chief of the Sri Lankan tea board says production is rallying thanks to “intensified fertiliser application”, following the country’s recent failed attempt to convert to 100% organic. (The Hindu – Business Linepaywall)


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