THIRST News Update – June 2023

THIRST News Update – June 2023


Image: Protesters buried in smoke after police fired teargas to disperse them at the Brooke trading centre in Kericho on May 21. Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

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To be able to continue providing these updates, we need your support. Your contribution 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.





Welcome to our two new Trustees, Filbert Kavia and Jane Nyambura

We are delighted to announce that we have appointed two new Trustees to the Board of THIRST who bring with them a vast body of experience and knowledge of the tea sector, human rights and sustainability, particularly in relation to the African tea sector.

  • Filbert Kavia is Transform Trade’s Regional Director for East Africa. He has over 25 years of working experience in sustainable tea production in East Africa, including as operations director of The Wood Foundation Africa on extensive smallholder tea farms development projects in East Africa.
  • Jane Nyambura is a tea farmer and independent tea and sustainability consultant. She has over 15 years of experience as a sustainability and partnership professional working with companies and key tea organisations in the Kenyan tea sector, includeing 12 years with the Ethical Tea Partnership and as a trustee of the Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation.

For more information on Filbert and Jane and on the rest of the THIRST team please visit our Who we are webpage.

New on THIRST’s Knowledge Hub

  • Framework for FPO Industry Partnership on Sustainable Development Goals
    Centre for Responsible Business and India Foundation for Humanistic Development
    The aim of this framework is to underline opportunities for Farmer Producer Organisation (FPOs), especially small/marginal farmers, to engage market actors by strengthening and disclosing their performance on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Boiling Point: Strengthening corporate accountability in the tea industry
    Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, May 2023
    In this report, BHRRC demonstrates use of its Tea Transparency Tracker and data held by Open Supply Hub to link 70 allegations from 28 publicly available sources identified in 2022 at the supplier level to 16 tea buyers.
  • Human Rights Impact Assessment: Tea from India – Assam, West Bengal And Tamil Nadu
    Aldi Nord, February 2023
    This report presents the findings of the Human Rights Impact Assessment for the ALDI Nord Group of companies on the tea supply chain in India, conducted by Ergon Associates.
  • Tea in a Digital Age:
    Tea and Herbal Association of Canada for the FAO, December 2020
    This report proposes innovative digital strategies to optimize revenues of tea smallholder farmers. It also contains a useful breakdown of the share of value in the tea value chain.

Visit Knowledge Hub

Update on the Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector

Trends, patterns and questions emerging

Results are beginning to emerge from THIRST’s surveys, interview and focus group discussions on the root causes of the human rights gap thart was identified in our literature review. The picture that is unfolding is of a global industry that has outgrown its colonial roots and 19th century employment and trading models, and is starting to find its way in the modern economy with its growing emphasis on transparency, and on the human rights and environmental responsibilities of industries – often harnessing technology to do so. It is balancing this with significant changes in market trends with shifting global demand patterns, and at production level, increasing de-estating, casualisation and mechanisation. The industry is clearly in a transitionary phase, raising the question of how duty bearers can ensure that the 13 million people who are reliant on the industry in its current state, will have a decent livelihood in the future whether within or beyond tea.

Be part of the study

THIRST is now actively seeking funding partners for the production of the report pulling this emerging data together and presenting a coherent evidence-based narrative that will form the basis for the multi-stakeholder Action Planning roundtables in Phase 3.  To discuss how your company or organisation can support the report and get involved, please:

Contact THIRST 

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News from our network

  • Tea and Empire symposium: Call For Participants: Tea in and after Empire
    This virtual symposium/workshop series, to be held on a monthly basis throughout the 2023-2024 academic year, aims to create a platform for scholars from various disciplines and career stages to discuss works in progress that are focused on tea (as a beverage, medicine, commodity, cultural practice, botanical, national marker, etc) in imperial and postcolonial contexts.  We encourage participants to share works of all formats (papers, films, digital humanities, photography, art exhibitions, etc.) All projects presented will be considered for inclusion in an edited volume and/or a special journal issue edited by Erika Rappaport and Muey Saeteurn. Interested scholars should submit a CV to and complete the intent to participate form by June 30th. Please address any questions to Erika Rappaport and Muey Saeteurn at
    More information and application process

  • Ethical Tea Partnership position paper on net zero in the tea industry 
    The ETP has published a position paper outlining its global position on net zero in the industry,  including the challenges to achieving net zero, and its approach to catalysing change. The paper is the latest in a series detailing the organisation’s positions on its three strategic impact areas: the economics of tea; equality for women and young people in tea; and the environmental sustainability of tea.  


Disclaimer: The following updates consist of a summary of articles from the media over the past month – 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.

Climate impacts bring new pests and low yields

Climate impacts continue to be felt across tea origins. There have been several stories from Asia this month, with the lack of rain and a heatwave bringing new pests increasing costs and reducing yields, putting huge pressure on producers in Bangladesh (The Daily Star, May 10) and West Bengal.

Indian tea associations say low tea market price is adding to the climate impacts resulting in the industry “reeling under a crisis”. (Millennium Post, May 10). India’s Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (MoAFW) has constituted two experts teams to assess the impact and scale of the damage caused by the tea mosquito bug and evaluate the tea planters’ request to use some other restricted pesticides. (India News, May 3).

This combination of erratic weather and insect attacks is forcing small tea growers to opt for alternative crops such as horticulture (Millennium Post, May 21). In Kenya, too, adverse effects of climate change have forced small scale tea farmers to develop innovations such as agroecology, planting of weather resistant tea and agroforestry to keep the quantity of their tea flow in the tea buying centres.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has approved a loan of 345 million U.S. dollars to enhance the development of green agriculture and rural areas in central China’s Hubei and Hunan provinces (, 1 May).

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Tea workers’ rights –  breaches and benefits

A report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has accused leading tea brands and retailers of failing to address issues such as “Unfair wages, poor health and safety conditions and harassment”,  (The Grocer, May 19 and Fooddive, May22) while also recognising examples of “better practice” by some of the companies, including awareness of the issues, worker engagement, the existence of grievance mechanisms, training, and long-term partnerships. (BHRRC, May 19). The report is based on media reports of abuses of human rights which are then linked to the buying companies through the Tea Transparency Tracker.

Breaches of workers’ rights were also reported in other contexts, including the alleged illegal withdrawal of ‘provident fund’ money from workers’ accounts in W Bengal (Telegraph India, May 26), temporary workers on a W Bengal tea estates waiting for up to ten years for permanent contracts, which deprives them of health insurance and other benefits (The Quint, May 11) , and workers in Assam apparently being asked to sign away their rights as a new company takes over the estate (Tripura Info, May 6).

There has also been a damning report about human rights deprivations for tea workers in Sri Lanka; most of the problems it describes, including poverty wages, inadequate housing and lack of running water and toilets for workers who are “descendants of indentured labourers brought from southern India by British colonisers,” are not new but have been covered extensively over many years in a range of tea growing countries (see THIRST’s Human Rights in the tea sector – The Big Picture, 2021). However, the situation for Sri Lankan tea workers has been exacerbated in recent months by the country’s “economic crisis after a disastrous ban on chemical fertilisers in 2021, which decimated tea yields and caused production to fall to a 26-year low last year”.  This has led to an estimated “44% of families in tea estate areas [being] food insecure – twice the figure of urban districts” (UN World Food Programme), with tea pluckers saying “they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work”. (The Guardian, May 23).

However, the Sri Lankan tea board emphasises the enormous pressures that the tea sector is under and highlights the achievements of the sector. It points to efforts to “ensure fair prices for smallholder growers” and to the plantation sectors social welfare initiatives, including providing meals to workers during the pandemic, encouraging vegetable cultivation, building retirement homes, youth empowerment programmes and “promoting upward mobility for their workers” (News of Bahrain, May 21).

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Tensions over wages

Trade union leaders and labour rights advocates have claimed that workers across Bangladesh “suffer discriminatory wages due to the lack of a national minimum wage standard”. Trade Union Centre general secretary Wajed-ul Islam Khan compared the Tk 8,000 minimum wage earned by workers in the readymade garment sector, to the Tk 170 per day earned by tea garden workers. (New Age, May 1). Hundreds of temporary tea workers in the country are reported to be earning around 30 to 50 percent lower wages than permanent workers despite the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, which says workers must be paid equal wages for equal work. (The Daily Star, May 1).

However, directives to increase wages in India have met with resistance, as plantation members of the Indian Tea Association have filed a writ petition challenging the state government’s decision to hike the wages for tea workers from Rs 232 to Rs 250 a day on an interim basis. Trade Unions see this as “an opportunity to demand implementation of the Minimum Wages Act… if the state fights properly to demand Minimum Wages legally”. (The Statesman, May 21)

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How will private equity firm takeovers impact human rights?

There have been several recent instances of private equity firms taking over tea companies, including Unilever’s sale of its tea business to CVC Capital Partners last year, and – last month – Finlays sale of its Kenyan estates to Browns Investment Plc, a Sri Lankan firm that had earlier acquired its Sri Lankan estates (Finlays, May 4th). There are fears that this may negatively impact on the human rights of tea workers and farmers since such firms are said to “generate high returns by having companies in their portfolio incur massive debts, thus necessitating extreme cost-cutting, which could include worker benefits. ‘But because private equity firms are so invisible, they don’t have to worry as much about any reputational issues that may arise,’ (Follow The Money, May 14). In the case of the Finlays sale, the companies have “agreed that the local Kipsigis community will hold 15 % shares of the [Finlays] tea estate…  [in order to] promote the welfare of the local community” (Kenya News Agency,  May 7). However, local politicians have questioned how this decision was made and accused the company of perpetuating what they see as historical ‘land grabbing’ and displacing local people to make room for tea plantations. (, May 10)

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Adding value, increasing income

On May 21 – the UN-designated International Tea Day, the All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association (AASTGA) called for a minimum support price for tea grown by smallholder farmers, citing prices as low as Rs 23 per kg being paid to smallholder farmers by bought leaf factories despite a minimum benchmark price of Rs 30 per kg having been set by the state government. (Sentinel Assam, May 22).  Low tea prices have been a consistent theme for many years across the tea sector, and yet there are instances of tea fetching very high prices. For example, last month a batch of orthodox tea from Nepal, was sold through auction at a price of 10,000 Nepalese rupees per kg (equivalent of approximately 6,250 Indian rupees for comparison). This has supported Nepalese tea farmers’ argument that they should have access to direct exports rather than selling cheaply through India. (My Republica, April 30)

A “new generation of tea producers” in Assam is bringing in new innovations in tea production and marketing to improve tea quality and get better prices for farmers. These include bagless “tea dips” leaf teas compressed into cubes on a string; and measuring the day’s plucking by fine leaf count (FLC) for quality, rather than by weight which encourages inclusion of lower quality coarser leaves and stems. (Live Mint, 14 May). Also in Assam, Upamanyu, the founder of a new company realised that, because the drastic decrease in wholesale prices of tea leaves has made supplying large buyers unsustainable, “to survive we need to work in a different way.” He has accordingly set up ‘research-based small holder’s tea sourcing platform’ to help naturally organic (because they could not afford fertilizer), smallholder green tea farmers improve the quality of their tea. He claims his company “was founded with the purpose of helping small tea growers become farmer-entrepreneurs by providing them with skills to produce international quality fine tea and finding a market for their produce”. (My Ind Makers, May 8)

Kenya Tea Development Agency is also adding value by installing orthodox tea processing lines in 13 factories which should fetch higher prices in global markets and so increase farmers’ earnings. (The Star, 11 May). A group of Sri Lanka’s tea smallholders has teamed up to boost the promotion of Ceylon specialty teas and artisanal or homemade teas. They will be produced “through the plucking of the traditional two leaves and a bud concept alone” and are expected to fetch high prices in markets like Japan, Australia, West Asia and Europe…“We have already received a good feedback for our samples used to promote our venture,” a member of the group said, adding that “if we get a higher price and an increased revenue then it could be extended to the pluckers as well.” (Sunday Times, May 14)

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Kenya tea crisis

The Rainforest Alliance has suspended the certification of Kenyan tea estates implicated in the BBC Africa and Panorama sexual exploitation exposé for 3 months pending audits to demonstrate compliance or improvements. (Rainforest Alliance, May 11 and Standard Media, May 12). Finlays has responded to the allegations by instigating a new worker safeguarding plan (Standard Media, May 22).

Last month there were also violent clashes between police and youths, leading to the death of one 34-year-old man (The Star, May 26). Harvesting machines and police cars were torched by protestors as local youths clashed with police after invading James Finlay and Ekaterra estates and plucking the tea to sell to brokers. This followed an ongoing dispute over mechanization leading to job losses (Nation, May 18). One legislator has called on Finlay’s and ekaterra to address the escalating conflicts with the community by helping to tackle unemployment. (The Star, May 16)

As a result of the unrest, ekaterra has suspended its operations (Nation, May 23).  Politicians and administrators have since agreed to open a dialogue with elders, leaders, youth representatives and tea companies to find a solution, and the tea association has apologised for “Utterances that may have fuelled the stand-off and invasion of the tea estates”. (Nation, May 29).

The East Africa Tea Trade Association has said the situation will have huge ramifications for the Kenyan economy. (The Star, May 25). The clamour for land rights by a section of residents of Bomet and Kericho counties, controversy over tea plucking machines, alleged sex scandals and poor working conditions are some of the issues that await Browns, the Sri Lankan private equity firm that are the new owners of Finlays. (Standard Media, May 18).

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Estates and smallholders call for government intervention 

The Bangladesh Tea Association has asked the government to allocate 1,800 tonnes of subsidised wheat to tea workers as global demand for tea is lower than anticipated, and production costs (wages, production materials, electricity, gas, fertiliser have significantly increased). (The Financial Express, May 15).

In Kenya, KTDA is urging the government to review local tea levies in light of the “considerable challenges” that the tea industry suffers. (The Star, May 22). Kenyan tea sector leaders are also calling for government support in value addition to boost farmers’ income, saying the journey to diversification into value-added teas such as orthodox and flavoured teas was too expensive for factories to handle alone (Kenya News Agency, May 28). Kenya’s Senate Agricultural Committee has stated its intention to “flush out” cartels of middle men who they say have been exploiting small tea farmers. They say their new tea bill will give farmers freedom to sell tea directly to market and not through the Mombasa tea auction; “this will diversify the tea sector and enable farmers get value for their sweat”. (The Star, May 11). Smallholder tea factories have appealed to the Government to find alternative funding for Kenya Tea Development Agency Management Services and similar agencies instead of levying farmers 1% on the net sales value of tea sold as per Tea Act 2020. (Capital Business, May 8) Another group of Kenyan small-holder tea farmers has called on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries to include minimum guaranteed returns and subsidised inputs for farmers in the Tea Amendment Bill 2023 (Kenya News, May 10). 

As yet another Indian tea estate – Debpara estate in Jalpaiguri, W Bengal – closes down, leaving around 1,200 workers jobless, workers are calling for urgent government intervention to reopen the estate (Telegraph India, May 7). Workers on another closed estate in Kamalpur, in the south of Assam, who had formed a cooperative are now “facing starvation” since the cooperative has also failed. (Tripura Info, May 16).

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Support from non-governmental organisations

A tea cultivation and factory construction programme partnership begun in 2017 between Unilever and British entrepreneur, Sir Ian Wood, is nearing completion. Unilever Tea Rwanda signed an agreement with the Government of Rwanda in May 2016 to invest over $30 million over the four years in developing two large scale tea sites. (KT Press, May 27).

Meanwhile, tea (and coffee) farmers in Laos (Southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic) are set to benefit from higher production capacity and lower processing times after receiving new equipment from the International Labour Organization (ILO). (Newswires EIN, May 26).

Sri Lankan tea (and rubber) smallholder farmers will benefit from a new collection and marketing centre set up with the support of the Smallholder Tea and Rubber Revitalization Project (STARR); it is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and aims to improve food security, increase incomes and strengthen the resilience of poor rural people in Sri Lanka.

A number of Kenyan tea farmers are being offered a free, two-day medical camp organized by the KTDA Foundation in partnership with an insurance firm. Hundreds of farmers were examined for non-communicable diseases; the most prevalent included diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and peptic ulcers (Kenya News Agency, May 12).

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Impacts of technology innovations in tea

Technological innovations are impacting on tea workers and farmers in a variety of ways, from mechanical harvesting to digital payments. A solar-powered tea-picking robot has been demonstrated in China. It uses agile mechanical arms and caterpillar wheels to pluck tea…its introduction “has been a boon for local tea planters, who have been facing a significant shortage of labor lately.” (Xinhuanet, May 27).

Meanwhile, in Rwanda, seven tea factories who had adopted digital payment solutions such as mobile money, automated savings, and credit cooperatives (SACCOs), and online/mobile banking systems to pay their farmers have seen an 87% reduction in payment timelines for farmers, a 10% reduction in factory worker costs and a 30% increase in productivity. A new study (available on the Knowledge Hub) published by the UN-based Better Than Cash Alliance and ETP suggests that scaling up digital payments like these could result in a saving of $8 million over 10 years and the funds could be reallocated to address climate change and socio-economic issues. (Farmers Review Africa, May 2)

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