Hear no evil, see no evil – gender issues in the tea industry

Hear no evil, see no evil – gender issues in the tea industry

A guest blog by Michael Pennant-Jones.

The recent BBC documentary Panorama -Sex for work: The true cost of our tea, has thrown a spotlight on gender-based violence in the Kenyan tea industry. A few observations we need to consider.

First sexual harassment and violence is not a tea thing, it’s not a Kenya thing, it’s in all sectors and societies globally. It is committed by individuals intent on getting their way, breaking the law or taking advantage of situations. We only have to look at the daily news to see examples in our own countries.

Second demonising producers, the industry, cutting off buying from those producers, knee jerk multiple initiatives will not improve the lives of workers. There needs to be a clear focus on putting the workers first.

Third these sites were some of the best in the tea industry for gender work and were regularly audited and certified. What does this tell us about certification and compliance audits that multiple sectors hold in high regard?

I had a discussion with a senior Manager in one of the biggest UK retailers (not tea). We were discussing the potential of Gender based violence at one of their supplier sites in India. Staffed by young, low caste, unmarried migrant women, living hundreds of miles from home, housed in a controlled environment by the site. The opportunity for being subject to gender based violence was high and there was no barriers to potential abuse. There were no trusted avenues for the women to raise issues or get remediation (culturally even admitting to being sexually abused or harassed, can put the victim in danger). However this was not seen as a risk for the brand as audits had not identified a non-compliance. As a note, non-compliances have to be triangulated by manager interviews, systems and worker interview (a 15 minutes interview of a vulnerable person by a stranger is rarely going to elicit anything).

All common sense and circumstantial evidence supported a potentially significant issue-which later events proved to be true. But because audits didn’t identify a non-compliance in effect there was nothing to see, no corporate risk, no requirement for the factory to undertake any work. The site was compliant.

The tea industry has an approach to human rights through certification. Many tea companies make marginal profit yet millions of dollars flow out of the industry every year to certification schemes and auditors. It is widely known certification will rarely identify salient issues, does not identify root cause, nor provide remedy, nor practical action to prevent.  To be fair this is not just a certifiers’ problem, but implicates everyone who takes part in the show.

Certification has brought benefits, but the world has evolved. We need a wider discussion about what value certification or alternatives can realistically bring to the industry and realign our focus on what is material and salient to workers, producers and other key stakeholders.

On gender we must recognise that a compliance model is very limited. Gender issues are dynamic, constantly evolving, difficult to identify and very difficult to fully manage. This does not mean we cannot do something. There are options with some very practical work being implemented by forward looking producers, these tend to have a worker-centric approach, with a deep understanding of the levers of gender dynamics and the local complexities on the ground.

Women are the backbone of world tea production. The Panorama programme should be taken as an opportunity for the tea industry to take control. Let’s start by acknowledging you can’t badge or audit something as complex and difficult as gender. This needs to be followed by embracing the issues, questioning current orthodoxies and for the industry to work on common, supported and coordinated strategies to make proactive and positive change for women throughout the industry.

Michael Pennant-Jones is an independent sustainability consultant, with over 20 years in the tea industry with Typhoo and Finlays, former Director at Impactt (human rights consultancy) and a has previously been Vice-Chair at ETP, a Board Member at ETI and a trustee of THIRST. 

Michael Pennant-Jones, THIRST and Women Working Worldwide are working to produce a paper on the structural and systemic drivers of sexual exploitation specific to the tea sector to help frame the discussion – and resulting actions by the tea industry and its stakeholders – going forward. The paper is due to be published at the end of May 2023.

The views expressed in guest blogs are those of the author and are not necesssarily endorsed by THIRST. They are published to stimulate discussion on important topical issues.