Highlights: Bangladeshi tea workers win half demanded wage rate; smallholders demand better prices; health and safety legal action by Finlays workers resumes; five die in climate-related accidents.
Image: Tea workers show three fingers in tune to their demand for Tk 300 in cash wage. Photo: Philip Gain Daily Star
Webinar: Advancing human rights in the tea sector: what is the role for supply chain sustainability tools and approaches?
On 27th September at 12.30 BST, Evidensia is hosting a free learning event on this topic, in partnership with THIRST. It will build on THIRST’s recently published literature review, Human Rights in the Tea Sector – The Big Picture, which makes up the first phase of the ongoing Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector.
Addressing key human rights challenges is going to need concerted action and commitment by market actors. Several supply chain sustainability approaches such as certification, company codes and other tools have been operational in the tea sector for several decades. ‘What should be the role of certification bodies in the protection of human rights?’ How far have they gone in addressing some of the human rights issues in the sector? How much further can they go? What underlies the gap between these sustainability approaches’ intentions and the reality for tea workers and farmers worldwide? What sector-wide cooperation is needed to take a systemic approach to addressing these challenges? And how is emergent due diligence legislation going to affect our efforts? The Evidensia event will explore these questions, drawing from the THIRST study and adding perspectives from practice.
Human Rights in the Tea Sector – The Big Picture has also been included on The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre database.
THIRST’s Knowledge Hub hits a century!
Did you know that THIRST hosts a regularly-updated collection of reports and resources on tea workers’ and farmers’ social and environmental issues? The Knowledge Hub is easily searchable using filters including topics, geographical area and date of publication and contains a wealth of information from a wide range of experts. This month we are proud to announce our 100th shared resource!
Our most recent addition to the Knowledge Hub was the Rainforest Alliance Field Study 2021: Kenya Tea, summarising findings on working and living conditions for workers on Kenyan RA-certified tea estates and small grower groups, and identifying the challenges certificate holders face to transition to the 2020 Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard. Other recent highlights include the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre report Trouble brewing: the need for transparency in tea supply chains summarising the findings of a survey of tea companies’ supply chain disclosure and due diligence processes. This provided the data for the world’s first Tea Transparency Tracker.
There are also reports from trade unions, governments, intergovernmental organisations, academics, companies, the media and civil society. Browse the Knowledge Hub to see what’s available, or do a tailored search to find the perfect document to inform your work. If you can’t find what you’re looking for let us know.
And let us know, too, if you are planning to publish a new report on any aspect of tea workers’ and farmers’ social and environmental rights and wellbeing – we will gladly host it on the Knowledge Hub and promote it on this News Update.
Help THIRST to help you
If you find these updates useful, please help us to continue providing them by making a contribution. This will also enable us to continue 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.
- Wage wars, wins and worries in Bangladesh and beyond
- Tea smallholders call for bigger prices
- Tea Justice in Kenya
- Sustainability – in good company?
- Lethal impacts of climate emergency
Summary of this month’s tea update:
Wage wars, wins and worries in Bangladesh and beyond
Last month’s tea news was dominated by the indefinite strike by Bangladeshi tea workers, citing rocketing food and fuel prices making their current wage insufficient for survival. After almost a month of strikes demanding a daily wage of Tk 300 a day, with widespread support from fellow Bangladeshis, they finally agreed to almost half the amount, Tk 170 after failed negotiations prompted the country’s Prime Minister to intervene. However, many workers – who were struggling to survive without the wages or food rations which were suspended during the strike – are still unhappy with the (unprecedented) Tk 50 increase.
Tea estate owners also cite rocketing costs which, they say, constrain them from being able to pay more – and refer to the in-kind benefits workers receive as part of their remuneration (although others question the legality of including these in the wage calculation). The eternal and seemingly sector-wide impasse of low pay and poor quality in-kind benefits for workers against high costs and low tea prices for producers was played out yet again in this story.
Tea workers in some parts of West Bengal (whose bonus rate was set at 20% for the third year running) and Assam also saw small wage increases last month, with levels for other regions due to be set at a later date. Workers on DOTEPL plantations have not been paid for six weeks. Plantation owners are concerned at the raises in light of sharp increases in costs and climate shocks.
Tea smallholders call for bigger prices
Meanwhile smallholder tea farmers in Bangladesh, Assam and South India are calling for fair minimum prices to be fixed and (in Bangladesh) for processing facilities and auctions to be established closer to production areas to make their businesses more viable. Tea farmers in Kenya and Bangladesh are giving up on tea for more lucrative products such as dairy and maize.
Tea justice in Kenya
There have been a number of Kenyan legal developments in connection with the tea industry; claimants in the Finlays health and safety case can resume their action after Scotland’s courts overruled a Kenyan court’s anti-suit injunction. Another group has filed a case against the British government for historic landgrabbing and other abuses in Kenya’s key tea growing area – where there are currently protests against the introduction of plucking machines that are putting people out of work.
Sustainability… in good company?
Companies are investing in initiatives to improve the lives of tea workers and farmers; English Tea Shop has provided its farmers and workers with financial and practical support during the pandemic and its impacts; and Taylor’s of Harrogate and Twinings are among the private sector entities supporting a successful KTDA Foundation/ETP/GAIN project to improve nutritional behaviour among tea production communities.
Other companies are seeking to protect the environment; Unilever has committed to achieving a deforestation-free supply chain (including tea) by the end of 2023 and Ekaterra has launched four blends produced using a “verified regenerative approach” for people and planet. South India’s Indcoserve is also supporting smallholder farmers to transition to organic production.
Lethal impacts of climate emergency
That sustainable practices are vital was made evident from the deaths of five tea workers – a woman in South India killed by a falling tree while she was out plucking during heavy rains, and four women crushed when the hillside where they were collecting mud to repair their houses collapsed.
THIS MONTH’S TEA NEWS IN DETAIL
Wage wars, wins and worries in Bangladesh and beyond
Timeline of Bangladesh tea workers wage strike:
August 9th: Hundreds of tea workers start a “two hour work abstention” demanding a wage increase from Tk120 to Tk 300/day. (Prothomalo) The call is prompted by “surging living costs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fueled price rises worldwide. In June, the nation’s inflation rate soared to 7.56%, the highest in eight years, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.”(Nikkei Asia)
August 13th: Tea Workers Unions call an indefinite across the country. One tea worker says, “We work hard, but we don’t receive fair wages. The prices of essential commodities are increasing every day, but our wage remains same.” (Prothomalo)
August 16th: Transparency International Bangladesh urges ministries to “take steps to determine a logical wage acceptable to tea workers through equality-based discussions considering the rights of the tea workers as citizens of the country.” (Dhaka Tribune)
August 19th: A group of prominent citizens, including professionals and rights activists, expresses solidarity with the tea workers’ demand for better wages, calling on the government to “ensure a ‘subsistence wage’ for the tea garden workers”. (New Age)
August 21st: The leaders of tea workers’ unions withdraw the strike after the PM intervenes, instructing authorities to increase the daily to Tk145. But hundreds of workers defy the unions and stayed away from work, vowing to continue their demand for Tk 300/day. (Daily Star)
August 22nd: The Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) representing landowners, say workers earn the equivalent of $4 a day, including benefits such as free housing, 3.5 kg of wheat rations per week and access to medical care. But workers argue that those medical facilities are “poor and inadequate”, and “the housing amounts to shanties that they are expected to pay for”. (Nikkei Asia) (see also The Business Standard)
August 26th: Striking workers report challenge of survival during the strike; “No rice for four days. How would I get the money to buy rice? No work for 18 days. Rations are off. We eat one meal a day and skip the other.” Others expressed hope that the PM will consider their land rights demands – their families have occupied their houses for 175-years yet, while other agricultural workers gaining ownership of the land they live on, tea workers are still landless. (BD News) (See also Daily Star).
August 28th: Unions accept an unprendeted Tk50/day increase agreed between PM and tea garden owners (Dhaka Tribune). (The Labour Act allows government intervention to bring an end to the strike when all other negotiations have failed). Tea garden owners say that there will also be increases in annual, festival, sick leave and bonus payments and in subsidised rations, medical care, pensions, and children’s education. (News Click). (Not all these benefits are included in wage calculations in neighbouring Assam which has many similiarities with Bangladesh, and some may contravene labour laws – Daily Star). However, many workers are still dissatisfied saying it will be hard to live on Tk 170/day (The Business Standard) One worker said “We cannot speak for ourselves… That is what panchayat heads and union leaders say. We accepted slavery. How will Tk 170 help when prices of essential commodities are so high?” (News Click)
Other wage news
Tea planters’ associations and trade unions held bipartite talks to finalise the bonus rate for workers in West Bengal‘s Terai and Dooars districts. Unions said steady prices peak production justified a continuation of 20% bonus for the third year running. Tea associations, citing the high cost of imporing coal (which was previously sourced in-country) and inclement weather affecting ealier crops, had urged unions to moderate their demands. (The Telegraph) But the 20% rate was finally agreed for all workers in these regions with exemptions for 47 “distressed” estates. (The Statesman). Those in Darjeeling will be agreed at a later date.
West Bengal plantation owners say their profit margins will be “severely impacted” by a recent 15% wage rise of estate workers and say that a “a corresponding rise in tea prices” is the only thing that would save the region’s tea industry. The impact on producers of high-quality tea is expected to be less severe, “Given the price premium they enjoy above the typical market realizations.” (Krishi Jagran)
Still in West Bengal, union sources claim that a majority of the nearly 7,000 workers workers at Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Pvt Ltd (DOTEPL), owned primarily by a European investor group, had not been paid for the last month and a half. (Telegraph India)
Meanwhile, in Assam, after withdrawing a recent notification of a Rs 50 wage rise for tea workers, the state government announced increase of Rs 27/day in both Brahmaputra and Barak Valley (Economic Times). This will take their wages up to Rs 232 and Rs 210/day respectively (Telegraph India).
Tea smallholders call for bigger prices
While their estate worker counterparts strike for better wages, Bangladesh tea growers also protested, demanding a fair price for green tea leaves. The growers alleged that a “syndicate of tea factory owners” have intentionally suppressed prices for the last few years. They also sought government intervention in setting up a tea auction market and state-owned tea factory in the fast-growing area. (Daily Star) Low prices and a lack of processing facilities have made some tea farmers to get out of the sector altogether and return to cultivating maize and other crops. (Daily Star)
Tea growers in South India’s Nilgiris region are facing an all-time low in green tea leaf prices, falling to around Rs 10/kg – just below the Tea Board’s fixed price of around Rs 12/kg for August, and significantly below the cost of production, determined by the Horticulture Department at Rs 22.50/kg – taking into consideration labour, transportation, fertilizer and other input costs. The Hill District Small and Marginal Farmers Association have been demanding a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 30/kg . However, tea factories also claim to be realising poorer returns for made tea at auctions. (DT Next)
The Assam State government brought wages on small tea gardens in line with organised estates, meaning they will have to pay the same daily cash wage. The All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association (AASTGA) claimed they were not consulted and that it was not possible for them to pay the increased wage without a government-imposed minimum support price, and asserting that the minimum benchmark price implemented by the Tea Board was impractical. (The Hindu) The Government is making Rs 180-crore available to small tea growers to help with the development of the sector. AASTA called for additional support to establish organic tea farms, factories and packaging facilities. (The Sentinel).
Some Kenyan smallholder tea farmers are abandoning tea altogether for more lucrative products, such as dairy. (Standard Media)
Tea justice in Kenya
Early last month, Kenyan tea pickers’ suing Scottish-owned James Finlay Kenya Ltd for damages, claiming musculoskeletal injuries were caused by “repetitive manual labour with long hours and no breaks”, were issued with an anti-suit injunction by Kenya’s Employment and Labour Relations Court. (BBC) But lawyers acting for the tea pickers later won an order from Scotland’s Court of Session, telling JFK not to continue with the Kenyan action. (BBC) (See also The Guardian)
Another group of Kenyans has filed a case against the British government at the European Court of Human Rights over “colonial-era land theft, torture and mistreatment”, seeking an investigation and redress for crimes they say were committed in one of the world’s most important tea production regions, Kericho. (Reuters)
Meanwhile protests against the mechanisation of tea continue; tea farmers in one Kenyan region have called on the Government to regulate the use of Tea plucking machines which, they say, has made thousands of workers jobless. (Kenya News Agency)
Sustainability – in good company?
The Sri Lankan organic tea brand, Eglish Tea Shop, has voluntarily introduced measures to help tea farmers facing the impacts of economic and political crises. These include increasing salaries by over 60%, distributing infra-red cookers to reduce reliance on scarce gas supplies and considering funding solar-based power generation for 300 households. It provides transport and some daily essentials free of charge. ETS CEO , Suranga Herath, believes “businesses should hold themselves more accountable for resolving growing income inequalities and social issues.” (The Grocer)
Ekaterra-owned Tazo has launched its first regenerative tea line. In addition to the environmental benefits (see below), this means the people working on farms and throughout the supply chain “are adequately compensated for their time or given access to things like healthcare and education.” Tazo also claims to be “tracking everyone in the entire end-to-end Tazo supply chain towards a living wage,” (PR Week)
Successes are reported from Kenya’s TEAFAM (Tea farming Families) project, launched in 2020 by the KTDA Foundation, Swiss-based NGO, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Ethical Tea Partnership, with funding from the private sector including Taylor’s of Harrogate and Twinings. Food cultivation and nutrition behaviors have changed, and health indicators have improved following an awareness raising programme on healthy eating. It was initiated following concerns over smallholder farmers replacing food crops with tea on their small plots to create economies of scale to serve foreign tea markets. This resulted in widespread stunting due to malnutrition in tea producing regions (significantly higher than in the rest of the population), primarily among women and children. (Forbes)
Unilever has committed to achieving a deforestation-free supply chain. “This means that by the end of 2023, our palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa will come from places that are verified as deforestation- and conversion-free.” Their action plan to achieve this is focused on “transparency and traceability, focused sourcing and working with farmers and smallholders”. (Unilever)
Ekaterra is advertising a “regenerative agriculture approach” for four of its Tazo blends. The approach, it claims, “gives back to soil health, the ecosystem and the people who rely on the land.” The blends are composed of teas certified organic and by Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade USA. (PR Week)
South India‘s Nilgiris district administration is encouraging smallholder tea growers to forego chemical fertilizer and adopt “sustainable practices”. With funding from Indcoserve tea cooperative federation, around 500 farmers are expected to switch to organic tea farming. (DT Next)
Lethal impacts of climate emergency
Tea workers in India and Bangladesh died in climate-related accidents last month. Forty-year-old Sumathi died when a tree fell on her while she was working in a South Indian tea estate in during heavy rains.(The Print) and four Bangladeshi tea-garden workers died while collecting mud to repair their houses when the hillside collapsed. (Daily Star)
Record-low rainfall in Taiwan’s Yilan County this year, and the absence of annual typhoons has led to withered tea shrubs and more than two-thirds of newly planted tea trees dying. (Taipei Times)
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