THIRST’s response to BHRRC’s new report

THIRST’s response to BHRRC’s new report

THIRST provided comments to the introduction of BHRRC’s new report, Boiling Point – Strengthening corporate accountability in the tea industry, but had not seen the full report until its publication today, when we realised that it contained a number of points that we do not agree with.  As our name appears on the report [removed on 22/05/23], we would like to clarify our position on some of the points it contains, and look forward to an open and constructive dialogue with BHRRC and other tea stakeholders.

THIRST welcomes BHRRC’s new tea report – which raises many important points that we agree wholeheartedly with. But we also have some important caveats.

We agree that “Bold, collaborative action is needed to transform the industry for the benefit of the workers on which it rests.”

We agree that “Recognising many of the issues in the tea industry are structural and related to decades-old systems of estate governance, companies should lead individual and collective efforts to reform the system and remove the dependency of tea workers on estate management for basic facets of existence”.

But we question the claim about tea buyers that “no other single actor in the supply chain has greater power to effect change”. Do governments, tea associations, large trading companies, and investors not have at least as much, if not more power to effect change?

Regardless, the mores of the 200 year old tea industry are deeply embedded and it will take more than any single actor to meaningfully change them.

Human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) of individual buyers’ supply chains in various sectors have repeatedly emphasised the limitations of those companies’ influence and pointed to industry-wide drivers. For example, Lidl‘s HRIA of its Kenyan tea supply chain found that “Most impacts result from market dynamics and the way that suppliers and producers within Lidl’s supply chain operate, as opposed to resulting solely from Lidl’s direct activities.”

Aldi Nord‘s HRIA of its Assam tea supply chain concluded “Each impact tends to result from a variety of root causes. These may be legal or regulatory root causes such as inadequate wage setting mechanisms, or business and sectoral root causes such as the structure of the PLA-estate subsector and prices pressures on estates resulting from market mechanisms. While many of the identified impacts are associated with fundamental ways in which the tea sector in India operates the study identified areas of ALDI’s commercial activity that could link ALDI to salient human rights impacts and their root causes (where these have a business driver).” (Emphasis added.)

So yes we do agree that bold, collaborative action is needed. That’s why THIRST is conducting its sector-wide human rights impact assessment.

The Boiling Point report says “Companies need to do more to understand the long-term, structural changes to their business practices which are needed to ensure producers can provide housing, schools, food and other entitlements to workers”.

We agree.

Not everyone will follow the links from the report to each company’s full response, but, if they did so they would find some well thought through analyses of the structural and systemic drivers of the social problems facing tea workers. Some of the quotes used in the report also reflect a pretty astute understanding of these drivers  – eg “low minimum wage levels set by governments; the prevalence of informal, low paid labour; the historically low retail price of tea; and business practices that can result in downward competitive pressure.”

Yet, instead of welcoming this understanding as evidence that companies are attempting to get to grips with the issues, the report describes this as “shifting the burden to other actors such as the local government and their suppliers”.

The truth is that the burden IS a shared one, so the quest for solutions has to be shared as well. The companies are right to say “wage issues in tea supply chains are complex, caused by a multitude of factors and cannot be addressed by one stakeholder alone.”

We agree with the report that, as per the UNGPs, “companies have a responsibility to ensure decent wages and livelihoods for workers and their families in their supply chains”, but this will only be achieved if they take BHRRC’s advice to “Lend support to due diligence legislation and regulation to ensure a level-playing field approach and create a conducive environment for improving social conditions across the sector” and if it includes “signing global framework agreements with IUF” as well as collaborating with local representatives of tea workers, farmers and their communities.

The report criticises companies for not engaging directly with workers in its supply chain. While agreeing completely that listening to workers’ voices is vitally important, some thought needs to go into the logistics of how best to achieve this. Is each individual buying copmany visiting and engaging with workers on a regular basis the best way to approach this? Should they be penalised for not doing so? Or, as suggested elsewhere in the report should they “know which other companies are sourcing tea from the same estates to enable buyers to tackle the issue collaboratively – leveraging their collective buying power to make changes at farm level”?

For example, they could collectively identify and listen to local representatives such as trade unions and other civil society actors who would be much better placed than them to talk directly with tea workers. This would not only avoid retraumatising survivors of sexual exploitation (as the report rightly stresses), but would also avoid placing additional burdens of time and resources on already struggling producers.

Finally, we agree wholeheartedly that “These gaps highlight the importance of ongoing research in producing countries and direct engagement with workers and other stakeholders to gain a comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing tea workers – as well as steps to mitigate these.”

But we would add that the research must include a wider analysis of the industry as a whole as well as the economic, legislative, political and social context within which it is operating. Not to do so risks oversimplifying the problems and suggesting activities that not only may fail, but may actually create other problems.

Companies may be discouraged from being transparent about their supply chains if they are not seen to be given a fair hearing when they do so (the company that did not respond gets off lightly), or may start to consider withdrawing their tea sourcing from countries with high human rights risks rather than continuing to work on addressing those risks

In addition to participating in other collaborative platforms such as the Ethical Tea Partnership, the Ethical Trading Initiative and IDH, we invite all tea stakeholders to make use of THIRST’s human rights impact assessment of the global tea sector as a platform for collaborative inquiry and action planning:

  • Read our literature review, Human Rights in the Tea Sector – The Big Picture,
  • Contribute to our root cause analysis – which is currently underway (contact us to find out how)
  • Participate in our roundtable discussions early next year on what actions need to be taken (or stopped) and which stakeholders can most effectively collaborate on these actions in order to make radical changes to the industry to tackle all the issues highlighted in the Boiling Point report and more.