THIRST News Update – July 2023

THIRST News Update – July 2023

Highlights: Climate impacts: tea workers die of heatstroke; women tea workers at risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation; Kenyan politicians questioned over estate invasions.

Image: Beauty classes have helped thousands of women in India’s West Bengal state to become financially independent, making them less likely to become victims of trafficking. Photo: Sukla Debnath South China Morning Post

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New on THIRST’s Knowledge Hub

  • A win-win situation for both farmers and private companies: A case study of tea marketing in Phu Tho,
    Vietnam. VECO, December 2013. 
  • The Estate Workers’s Dilemma: Tensions and Changes in the Tea and Rubber Plantations in Sri Lanka.
    Centre for Poverty Analysis, 2008

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Update on the Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector

Here’s what your fellow tea producers told us. Do you agree?

The key findings from the Global Tea Producers Survey were that the international tea market gives producers few incentives for ensuring decent working conditions and respect for human and labour rights; producers are selling a proportion of their made tea at below the cost of production which is hampering their ability to provide better pay and working conditions, and is even threatening the survival of some companies; and buyers often do not support producers in resolving non-compliances with their codes of conduct, or prioritise them over price issues.

Producers, do you agree? Add your voice by letting us know if you agree or disagree with these 10 statements from our Global Tea Producers Survey findings:  

Take the 10-question Agree/Disagree survey 

Partner with THIRST to find out how tea workers and farmers see the future of tea

Having completed the assessment part of the HRIA in our literature review, Human Rights in the Tea Sector – The Big Picture, we are now working on the root cause analysis of the human rights gap that it highlighted. Once that is complete we will be going out to tea workers and farmers and their children to find out at first hand what is their vision for the future of tea, what they think should change and how. We plan to use the innovative and highly participatory SenseMaker methodology that invites the interviewee to lead the process. SenseMaker draws on behavioural psychology, encouraging participants to tell their own stories in their own words and analysing large numbers of responses both quantitatively and qualitatively. Together with the literature review and the root cause analysis, the findings from this process will provide the industry and its stakeholders with a uniqely rich and informative basis on which to discuss what actions now need to be taken to close the tea sector’s human rights gap.

THIRST is now actively seeking partners for this action planning phase.  To discuss how your company or organisation can support the report and get involved, please:

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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: Two tea workers die of heatstroke 

Two women tea workers died of heat stroke in Bangladesh during a severe heatwave that swept over North East India and Bangladesh last month (Daily Bangladesh June 2nd). “After working in the heat, I feel like my skin is getting burned and I can’t stop it even using water,”  says one tea worker in Bangladesh (Dhaka Tribune June 22nd). Others complained of being “forced to spray chemicals without gloves or masks” as tea estate owners have allegedly resorted to ramping up the use of pesticides & insecticides to boost tea production, which are declining due to droughts, erratic rains, & increased pest attacks. (The Telegraph June 18th, Inventiva June 20th). These life-threatening conditions are leading to unrest among tea workers in Assam (Zawya May 31st) where tea companies, along with those in North and West Bengal, have incurred hefty losses due to heavily reduced rainfall and increased pests. (The Print June 1st). The losses were compounded by heavy rainfall after the prolonged drought in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Post June 19th). Climate impacts are also being felt in the South of India, where “erratic and extreme weather conditions due to the climate emergency” are combining with “rising production costs, falling prices, and a festering labour shortage, in the Wayanad-Nilgiri tea belt” leaving the industry… struggling for survival”. (Onmanorama, June 25th)

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Kenya tea crisis

A potent mix of historical land injustices, mechanisation and politics is reported to have fuelled unprecedented violence in multinational tea estates in the South Rift region.   Commentators say that “retraining farm workers, creating more jobs and diversifying economies in tea-growing communities, will be key to countering violence and growing anger.” (Yahoo News, June 13th) Pressure from multinational companies to protect their Kenyan assets has led to increased security efforts in the affected areas, but local residents complain that police are indiscriminately attacking them, rather than identifying and arresting the individuals actually stealing green leaves and torching harvesting machines. (Nation, June 13th). Leaders have agreed to invite investigation into alleged atrocities committed by police, including the arrest, alleged torture of innocent people, and the raping of women. (The Standard, June 25th). Politicians are said to be behind some of the unrest, and a governor, two members of parliament and at least three ward representatives are under investigations. (Nation, June 2nd).  Although ekaterra has now resumed its suspended operations (The Standard, June 27th), the instability and uncertainty in Kenya’s tea industry has led to losses of $2 million a week at Mombasa’s tea auction. (The East African, June 4th).  In better news, KTDA in conjunction with the county government of Bomet is offering a free medical camp to provide crucial healthcare to tea farmers who often lack access to medical examinations. (Youtube, June 30th)

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Women tea workers at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation

Activists claim that tea firms recruiting only men for labour-intensive mechanised operations are not compliant with the Kenyan government’s gender equity act seeking to create equal opportunities.  As a result, women in the sector are increasingly becoming unemployed and vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Maendeleo ya Wanawake, a Kenyan women’s grassroots NGO,  is advocating for women’s empowerment and protection of their rights amid increasing “claims of sexual abuse and rampant unwanted pregnancies in estate communities”. (The Standard, June 21st)

The tea plantations of West Bengal are also “regular hunting grounds for traffickers who lure vulnerable young women into the sex industry or forced marriages with promises of high-paying jobs across India”. A beauty trainer in India is offering them free courses to provide them with additional income during low seasons, empowering them to become more independent. Over the past 20 years, she has trained more than 5,000 women. “This has become a movement. These women have become aware of their rights and they will not be deceived any more.” (South China Morning Post, June 17th). By contrast, unions say Assam welfare centres are giving young people from tea communities short term training with outdated technology, offering no practical utility and no employment opportunities; they suggested that the government should instead tie up with skills bodies for nursing, plumbing, welding, electrician etc training. (The Sentinel, May 31st). Women tea workers are also being supported through the Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund, which convened a meeting in Kolkata last month to discuss convergence of shared actions to develop a sustainable mechanism for the well-being and safety of women and girls in tea estates. (United News of India, June 26th)

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Smallholder tea growers seek support for survival

The Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Associations (CISTA) say that although their contribution to the overall tea production volume of the country is close to 52%, they are not getting remunerative prices for their green leaf, while the costs of production are rising, and are seeking government assistance to achieve scale in their operations by setting up clusters. (The Economic Times, June 2nd). Small tea growers in Assam and Bengal, who contribute 90% of small sector tea, warn that “If the long-lasting price problem of the green tea leaf is not solved soon, the existence of small tea growers will be in the question mark shortly.” (East Mojo, June 18th). For example, a group of small tea growers in Assam staged a protest alleging that they have not received payments from the tea estate factory that they supply since September 2022 . The Sentinel, June 29th) In South India, migration of farmers away from tea is already being observed due to their inability to cover their cost of production. (World Tea News, June 7th). 

Tea farmers and manufacturers emphasised  the importance of increased collaboration from government, streamlined processes and simpler tax requirements in order to solve difficulties of the tea business and promote growth. (Study Cafe June 1st). The Indian Tea Board has responded by initiating a study to determine the price sharing formula (The Print, June 21st), and the Assam government has agreed to grant a three-year tax exemption on agricultural income starting from April 1 (Krishi Jagran, June 11th). The NGO, Solidaridad’s innovative Trinitea programme in Assam, in collaboration with the Indian Tea Association has helped to empower small tea growers by providing them with traceability systems, technical expertise, and enhanced market opportunities. (India Today NE, June 15th).

Meanwhile in Kenya, plans are underway to convene a high-level consultative conference bringing together tea farmers, who continue to protest against exploitation from cartels and brokers in the sub-sector. (PD, June 10th). 

Tea workers face death from mushroom poisoning, unsafe transport & wild animals

Sixteen tea workers in Assam seeking to supplement their diets with wild mushrooms have died from mushroom poisoning, a yearly occurrence…One worker said “people like us have been forced to depend on nature, where edible vegetables like mushrooms are available freely in the rainy season.” (India Times, June24th). Initiatives like the one underway in West Bengal, addressing malnutrition with self-help groups providing nutritious items at a nominal price (Millenium Post, June 1st) are needed in Assam. Meanwhile, another 29 tea workers were injured after the commercial truck that was carrying them overturned. The local trade union has for some time been urging companies to use proper passenger vehicles for their workers. (East Mojo, June 1st). Tea workers surrounded their tea estate office demanding compensation for a worker who was fatally injured by a tractor. (Northeast Now, June 13th). There has been another leopard attack (The Assam Tribune, June 9th) in Assam, and in Bangladesh, a tea worker has been killed by illegal deer hunters. (The Business Standard, June 23rd)

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Ongoing wage tensions between workers & employers

The Indian Tea Association has contesting in the Calcutta High Court that a government directive on further wage increases would bankrupt them. (Informist, June 2nd). Many estates are already feeling the pressure of financial challenges;  for example, one Darjeeling tea garden has started the process of retiring staff and sub-staff over 45 years old, The Telegraph, June 8th). However, the impact of a proposed wage hike in West Bengal tea estates is predicted to be less for those producing quality teas, “given the high premium their produce fetches over the market prices.” (The Economic Times, June 1st). Tea garden owners met on June 28 to discuss the ‘Extra Leaf Price’ (ELP – currently Rs 3 for every kilo over the standard 24 kilos a tea pluckers plucks per day). Unions are demanding that the ELP should be at least Rs. 10 per kilo, considering the rise in the prices of essential commodities over the last nine years and proportionate to the rise in wages. (Millenium Post, June 8th). The issue of land ownership, which would give tea workers more financial stability, arose again when members of the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association demonstrated in Dibrugarh seeking land rights documents (pattas) for people of the tea community. (Times of India, June 29th)

Meanwhile, tea estate workers in Munnar, Kerala, have protested against the state labour commissioner over the issue of dearness allowance which they claim has not been raised substantially in the past 33 years. This article also implies a significant gender pay gap in tea: “The wages of labourers were Rs 350 for men and 200 for women in the 2005-2006 period in the Wayanad-Nilgiri region which has now been increased to Rs 600 and Rs 350 respectively.” (The Times of India, June 12th). Tea cultivators in Myanmar are struggling to recruit workers due to low wages as well as conflict, while a lack of investment and infrastructure is inhibiting exports….the COVID-19 outbreak affected the market; prices began to fall and remained low for the next two years. But despite demand returning, the day rate for labourers has remained unchanged, while the cost of living has soared. (Frontier Myanmar, June 13th).

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Multiple approaches to supporting the tea trade India, Kenya, Malawi

With nearly half of Darjeeling’s tea estates up for sale last year (The Economic Times, June 10th), there is speculation that the traditional approach to tea estate management by “tea barons” is waning, making way for a new breed of tea growers who are replacing outdated British processing machinery with new Chinese stock and replacing old, unproductive tea bushes with a range of new high quality variants (World Tea News, June 14th). Another approach to rescuing tea estates from financial crises is to develop tea tourism; but there are concerns that management looking to set up tourism resorts in North Bengal tea gardens are violating the tea tourism policy that “80 per cent of local people get opportunity…. Preference shall be given to wards of workers of the tea garden.” (The Telegraph, June 4th).

As Kenyan tea exports take a 26% hit as a result of the Sudan war (The East African, June 14th), Kenya and the European Union signed a trade agreement in Nairobi. The first large-scale since 2016 with a country in Africa, where Brussels is seeking to forge closer economic ties and counter Chinese appetite. (Actual News Magazine, June 19th).

In an alternative form of trade agreement, the Central Coop Malawi Partnership, a trade-aid initiative aiming to sustainably support farmers and producers in Malawi, has been reflecting on its first year of supporting co-operative development, improving livelihoods, and helping to strengthen its trading capacity. (Retail Times, June 26th)

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The impact of mechanisation on tea workers

Kenya’s Central Organisation of Trade Unions said that more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs have been lost – many of them due to mechanised harvesting, but Kenya Tea Growers Association said that the use of modern technology in business was a global phenomenon that cannot be stopped. (Nation, June 13th). While innovative machinery at processing level is said to be boosting the quality of Kenyan tea, (Star  June 4th 23) women are losing out at the production level. Where an individual tea picker would pluck at most 45 kilos of tea leaves a day, the machines are doing nearly 9 times that amount. (Citizen Digital, June 11th). The majority of tea pluckers are young women who lack the opportunities and skills to thrive outside the tea sector.  Schools near tea estates have also witnessed a decline with the arrivalo of plucking machines. (The Standard, June 16th). Sri Lanka has also developed a tea plucking machine. Although hand plucking is considered the best method to get the best leaves, mechanised harvesting is being brought in as workers are moving out of the sector triggering labour shortfalls. (Economy Next, June 28th)

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Estate children dropping out of school

In 2022, “about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary, and 26 percent of collegiate students in Sri Lanka’s estate Sector had dropped out”, much higher than in urban and other rural sectors. Secondary schools are discouragingly far from the estates and travel is expensive. The prevalence of child labour is linked to the dropout rate. (News In Asia, June 18th)

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