THIRST News Update – December 2022

THIRST News Update – December 2022

Highlights: Repatriated Sri Lankan tea workers at risk of redundancy, homelessness;  to poverty and other problems for tea workers and farmers persist; solutions offered include tech, training, family friendly policies, harmonising certifications and adding value at source.

Image: Repatriated plantation Tamils arrive from Sri Lanka at Rameswaram pier in June 1982. | Photo Credit: Sadanand MenonFrontline



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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.

The interconnectedness of the tea industry, its colonial roots, the pressures it is currently under and how all this impacts on ordinary people is emphasised in this month’s leading story. TANTEA was set up in South India in 1968 to provide work for Tamil tea workers who had been repatriated from Sri Lanka, where their families had been indentured labourers on British owned plantaions. Now TANTEA is struggling and has been ordered to return a portion of its land to the Forest Department. Hundreds of workers and their families will be affected, either losing their jobs and homes or being relocated to work in TANTEA’ operations in other parts of the country.

The pressures on the tea sector have also led to another company, Warren Tea, pulling out of Assam to focus on its IT and hotel businesses, and – now that non-tea use of land is permitted – other companies are now eyeing Assam as a potential rubber producing area. Workers across South Asia continue to complain of low wages and non-payment of dues, with strikes in India and Sri Lanka, whose government, along with that of Bangladesh, is being urged to support tea workers and farmers better.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the small tea grower and plantation sector have been increasing; small tea growers in India are calling for recognition of their status as farmers, and are being offered addiional government support, while estates say they are “being denied a level-playing field, [and that] small players, with no proper knowledge, will scuttle the export market.”

But solutions are also being offered in various parts of the industry: Solidaridad is offering a host of tech solutions tailored to small scale farmers’ production and marketing needs; Farmers’ Voice Radio Academy is offering free online training, one-to-one coaching, membership of a community of practice and the opportunity to apply for a Farmers’ Voice Radio start-up grant; and Unicef has been supporting tea estate labour welfare officers in Assam to develop family friendly policies focusing on the rights of children and women. Solidaridad, Tea Board of Kenya, East Africa Tea Trade Association (EATTA), Trust Africa and other tea stakeholders plan to set up “a unified standard for Kenya tea that would work hand in hand with other applicable standards so as to reduce the cost of certification…”. Drought-resistant seeds have been developed in Tanzania and in Vietnam, farmers are being guided in organic farming techniques to help boost exports.

The floods affecting tea production in Rwanda and Sri Lanka will be harder to tackle with the latter experiencing a 30% dip in production. A study by the UK government has found that women are particularly hard hit by climate impacts, but that there is potential for “a positive reinforcing cycle – whereby women’s economic empowerment accelerates the adoption of climate-smart and regenerative agriculture.”

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Repatriated Sri Lankan tea workers’ jobs at risk

The Tamil Nadu government has ordered that 5,317 acres of tea estates owned by the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (Tantea) to be handed back to the State Forest Department after the company reported annual losses. Trade unions and politicians have opposed the order [The Hindu] [New Indian Express]. Tantea was established in 1968 to house and employ repatriated Tamil origin tea workers from Sri Lanka, many of whom will now be made redundant or relocated to TANTEA facilities in other parts of the country.

Concerns for the repatriated workers have also been raised by Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) who claim that the “families of these persons have suffered at least three major relocations—when they were taken to Sri Lanka as indentured labour in the last century and earlier, when the British ruled India; when they were sent back to India as part of a deal between India and Sri Lanka; and now, after the estates are closed….” They propose that the workers themselves could run and manage the estate. [The Hindu]. Tamil Nadu chief minister, M K Stalin, has unveiled the plans to house the retired Tantea workers free of cost. [Times of India]

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Tea makes way for rubber, hotels and IT

“With the Assam government allowing diversion of tea land for non-tea purposes, the Rubber Board has identified Assam as the next frontier for rubber as it looks for ways to reduce rubber import bill.” [Economic Times]. Still in Assam, “Warren Tea, which traces its lineage to the 1850s, is getting out of the tea plantation business. [It] has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the… Dhunseri group to sell its remaining four estates in Assam. [Instead, it] plans expansion of [its] IT and hotel businesses” [Business Standard]

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Governments & industry urged to support tea workers better

Bangladesh: “Discussants at a dialogue on Wednesday said that tea plantation workers do not receive adequate attention from policymakers and continue to lag behind.  The workers still deal with challenges, including socioeconomic, human rights, and unfair wage issues, said the discussants at the dialogue titled ‘Why are the Tea Plantation Workers Left Behind in Bangladesh?’ organised by the Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh, Manusher Jonno Foundation and Nagorik Uddyog in the capital.”  [New Age]

Sri Lanka: There have been calls for government support after “complaints that the budget has not offered relief to the estate workers, [and that] their daily wage issue is yet to be resolved. Beside, the fertiliser crisis, the unbearable cost of living, and malnutrition are also impacting them. Leading trade unions are calling for solutions. The Nuwara Eliya District has the highest rate of malnutrition in the country.” [Sunday Times] “Long before the country’s first-ever international debt default in May 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which added to the country’s problems, tea estate labourer Nagamma had already cut back on meals, as global trade froze during the coronavirus pandemic.” [UN News

While West Bengal tea workers “are being denied minimum wages, PF, bonuses, etc. [and] As a result, many are migrating to other states.” [News Click], Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association in Doomdooma registered a massive protest against Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) in front of its PP Factory… for non-fulfilment of employment commitments [to displaced tea workers]. [Sentinel Assam].

Meanwhile, “workers at Glenugie Estate [Sri Lanka], have been on indefinite strike since Oct 27 against speed ups & wage cuts… under conditions where it is impossible to make ends meet because of skyrocketing prices, food shortages and meagre wages.” [WSWS]

“In a letter to the Commerce Ministry, the Tea Board stated that limiting the use of glyphosate… will make timely weed management difficult [resulting] in a significant loss of crop [and increasing] the economic burden on marginal & small-scale farmers who are already dealing with severe price hikes.” [Krishijagran]

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Can tech save Indian small tea growers? 

India: The small tea sector in north Bengal, which accounts for more than 55% of tea produced in Bengal, is faced with an unprecedented crisis. Rising production cost & low prices are posing a threat to the livelihood of over 4 lakh people. [Telegraph India] “Small tea growers who contribute around 51 per cent of tea produced in India have sought from the Centre the status of farmers to underscore that without it growers are deprived of central and state benefits for farmers.” [Telegraph India] India’s “Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said that the government is taking steps to help the small tea growers (STGs), which includes automatic renewal of their licenses for exports, tea waste, and warehousing.” [The Hindu]. But “The bigger players are crying foul. They say they are being denied a level-playing field, small players, with no proper knowledge, will scuttle the export market.” [BizzBuzz News]  

“Solidaridad Asia in partnership with the Indian Tea Association organizes its First (?) India International Small Tea Growers’ Convention in Kolkata… participants discussed the role of smallholder farmers in the tea industry and ways to promote their health and well-being and make their businesses environmentally sustainable… According to Nayantara Palchoudhuri, Chairperson ITA; “The tea industry as a whole is being adversely impacted by factors [including] the growing effects of climate change, price stagnation, high input cost which has a bearing on the cost of production as well as the mismatch between demand and supply that results in oversupply. In addition, the industry has to bear high transaction costs while facing difficulties in realizing fair prices.” In response “Solidaridad is planning to introduce SoliTrace as a part of TRINITEA, a make-in-India sustainability initiative involving smallholder tea farmers and a QR code technology that would allow consumers to interact with the tea producers, as well as learn about the safety and quality standards adopted.” [APN News]

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Harmonizing certification standards so tea farmers benefit

“Tea multi-stakeholders have raised their concerns on harmonization and implementation of private voluntary standards for market access of Kenyan teas. Led by Solidaridad, Tea Board of Kenya, East Africa Tea Trade Association (EATTA), Trust Africa and others, the stakeholders agreed that the cost of certification is very costly and that tea farmers don’t get the return as expected… Kenya Tea Growers Association Chief Executive Officer Apollo Kiarii said they were looking forward to setting up a unified standard for Kenya tea that would work hand in hand with other applicable standards so as to reduce the cost of certification…” [Kenya News]

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Free Farmers’ Voice Radio training

Farmers’ Voice Radio Academy  is offering free training to organisations with an annual turnover of under £250k, working with tea, cocoa and coffee-producing communities. It consists of four online group training sessions, one-to-one coaching, membership of a community of practice and the opportunity to apply for a small start-up grant to help get participants’ Farmers’ Voice Radio project underway. To apply visit the Academy webpage. Closing date:  23 December 2022. [Farmers Voice Radio Academy]

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Tea estates develop family friendly policies

The ‘Child Rights & Business Principles’ programme (ABITA/UNICEF) held a meeting for 22 Tea Estates Labour Welfare Officers [in Assam] to develop an action plan on family friendly/welfare policy, prevention of sexual harassment at work place etc. [A] family-friendly policy with action plan to ensure certain rights of children and women in tea gardens were discussed. The meeting detailed on strengthening of Sexual Harassment Complaint Committee in each tea estate with giving more focus on follow up with sexual harassment cases in tea estates.” [Sentinel Assam]

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Boosting quality and value at origin

The Tanzanian tea research institute has developed tea seeds that “will help increase productivity in tea cultivation… The high-yield seed varieties will enable farmers to continue producing the cash crop even at times when the rains are unpredictable… The chairman of the Union of Smallholder Tea Farmers in Tanzania, Mr Santino Edson, says the introduction of drought-resistant seeds will be of great help to tea farmers in the country. [The Citizen]

“Bac Ha district, Vietnam, is seeking to promote the economic value of Shan Tuyet tea through guidance to local farmers in farming and harvesting technique and ensure all the production stages meet organic standards – and bring it to more foreign markets. “[Vietnam Plus]

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Workers face serious occupational health risks

“Two [West Bengal] tea garden workers had a close shave on Thursday as they escaped a bear attack by spraying pesticides at it, officials said.” [The Print]

“In a tragic accident, a woman died in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district on Monday, November 21, after stepping on a downed power line in a private tea estate. The woman, identified as Chithrammal (45), was a resident of Devarshola in Gudalur and was working in a nearby private tea estate. Per usual, she was working at the estate when she unknowingly stepped on a power line that had fallen on the ground. Chithrammal was electrocuted when she stepped on it and died on the spot.” [The News Minute]

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Floods, risk and rewards – especially for women farmers

Tea plantations in northern Rwanda have been destroyed by floods in recent years. To save the sector, the authorities are encouraging farmers to plant tea at higher altitudes, in areas less affected by the heavy rains. [France 24]

The Sri Lanka tea industry is also “expecting a 30 percent production dip this year due to heavy rains in October… the country’s tea production area and the export earnings also are likely to reduce…” [Economy Next]

The UK Government has published a research report entitled ‘From risks to rewards: overcoming the impacts of climate change on women in agricultural supply chains’. It aims to “take a closer look at the impacts of climate change on women in our supply chains, the essential women who pick the tea, vegetables, flowers and cotton”. It finds that “Women farmers are quite literally ‘risking everything’ as they face the disproportionate impacts of climate change…” but that there is potential for “a positive reinforcing cycle – whereby women’s economic empowerment accelerates the adoption of climate-smart and regenerative agriculture, increasing incomes, leading to more sustainable production and more resilient supply chains.” [UK Government website]

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