THIRST News Update – August 2023

THIRST News Update – August 2023
Image: Tanmay Bhaduri, East Mojo


  • Youth shot dead in continuing Kenyan tea unrest
  • Iconic Sri Lankan tea disruptor passes away
  • Protests against low and unpaid wages continue across South Asia
  • “loss-leaders are unethical” Food Ethics Council

Image: Tanmay Bhaduri, East Mojo

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  • This month, THIRST CEO, Sabita Banerji, is in Tanzania and Kenya and Associate Consultant, Narendranath Dharmaraj will be in Sri Lanka to document examples of innovative alternative approaches that will feed into the tea sector Human Rights Impact Assessment.
  • THIRST and Women Working Worldwide’s paper on the specific Gender-based Violence and Harassment risk factors in the tea sector is due to be published in mid-September.

This month’s tea news Summary

Darjeeling tea is being hit by multiple weather extremes as climate change continues to impact tea. Across South Asia strikes persist against low pay or wages and other due benefits not being paid at all. One group of women in Bengal are forming cooperatives to financially support themselves and to avoid migration and trafficking. Women workers in a UK tea packing factory are also struggling to make ends meet and are striking for more pay. Merril K Fernando, the iconic Sri Lankan tea industry disruptor, who dedicated his life to avoiding such issues for workers in his company Dilmah Tea, has passed away aged 93. Meanwhile, there has been a second death in the Kenyan tea crisis; a man was shot after being “forcefully accused” of stealing green leaves, while witnesses claim he was collecting waste tea left by one of the mechanised harvesters that they say is causing widespread unemployment. The shooting came soon after Finlays and ekaterra regained their Rainforest Alliance certification following improvement measures they have taken. The Kenyan tea workers suing Finlays over occupational injuries have been told that their case can be heard in the company’s Scottish base. Smallholder tea farmers in India and Uganda lobby for better prices to improve their incomes. These could be raised by around 40% through value addition measures, but supermarkets’ practice of selling tea and other popular products as a “loss-leader” has been called unethical as one effect it has is reducing producers’ incomes. Afghan migrants are earning an income in Turkish tea estates, and vulnerable women in Nepal are being offered jobs and support in a tea company with a 99% female workforce.

This month’s tea news in detail


Erratic climatic conditions have been affecting production of teas in Darjeeling. The region has recorded increased temperatures, drought and hailstorms. Water sources are limited and the heat means trees wilt quickly. (The National News 30th June)

Worker rights and wages

A compilation of meticulously researched human stories has been released, featuring low-wage migrant workers across Asia – including tea workers. One says that due to poverty, her under-age daughter is working in the field despite laws prohibiting child labour (Millennium Post, 8th July). Strikes protesting low or non-payment of wages continue across South Asia; hundreds of tea garden workers in Bangladesh have gone on strike to get unpaid wages during the peak time for tea production. (UCA News, 27th July) and many formed a human chain blocking the highway in Habiganj over unpaid dues (The Business Post, 22nd July). Workers of Kalchini tea garden, India, protested outside the manager’s office with a charter of demands, including payment of wages, salary, Provident Fund, and gratuity. (Millenium Post, 19th July). Campaigners demanding the withdrawal of court cases against 22 workers and two youths from Alton Estate in Maskeliya, Sri Lanka claim to have won national and international support. (World Socialist Web Site, 16th July). The president of the North Bengal Tea Workers’ Organisation claims that tea growers’ lack of land rights means that they do not have sufficient land to make them eligible for large-scale, government-sponsored livelihood programmes like animal husbandry, horticulture & kitchen gardening. As a result they are forming cooperatives to financially support themselves “so we don’t have to migrate to other states for jobs.” She claims that “Our land rights have been deliberately withdrawn from us because having land rights will virtually end the current order, which is like slavery”. (East Mojo, 16th July).

Innovative Dilmah tea founder passes away

Merril J Fernando, the “iconic” founder of Dilmah tea, famously “the first local tea, coffee or cacao producer from an emerging nation,” passed away last month after a lifetime of decolonialising Sri Lankan tea. His son, Dilhan, reflects that when the company was founded “It was a time when our political colonialism had been replaced by an economic form of colonialism, so he was viewed as an upstart that should not be allowed to exist.” He continues that Fernando “realised that if you look at inequality, sustainability, environmental or humanitarian, the key lies in empowering the farmer…. and for him “giving the producer the possibility to build education, to build innovation, to fight deforestation” held equal importance with offering consumers pure, high quality, unblended, Sri Lankan tea. He personally promoted his tea on TV, in contrast to what he saw as the facelessness of large corporations and to show that he could be held accountable; he said that consumers “know I am the man behind it, whether I do right or wrong they can write to me and blame me.” (, 21st July, with extracts from Dilmah News, 2019)

Kenya tea crisis: mechanisation, unemployment, tea theft & fatal shootings

A second man was shot dead on an ekaterra estate, after being “forcefully accused” of stealing tea (witnesses claim he was collecting waste leaves left by the harvesting machine). Kericho residents took to the streets and blocked roads in protest against his death and the mechanisation that they blame for rising unemployment (The Star, 20th July). The first death was during riots in May (reported in THIRST’S June News Update). Unrest and tea leaf theft is growing; a “massive invasion” by informal tea brokers in the Murang’a area is reportedly leading to “rampant” theft of green tea leaves to sell to them – farmers are urging the government to intervene. (People Daily, 28th July). The issue appears not to be confined to tea as Kenyan avocado farmers (who turned to avocadoes after their tea and coffee businesses collapsed) are now facing organised theft of crops for sale to middle men. (NTV, 2nd July).

The shooting came just days after the Rainforest Alliance lifted the suspensions of James Finlay Kenya (JFK) and ekaterra Tea Kenya, following the corrective actions implemented by the owners, prompted by the revelations in February of sexual exploitation on their estates (Rainforest Alliance, 19th July).

Other, older, grievances against JFK regarding occupational health risks of operating harvesting machines have now been given the go ahead. The complainants’ lawyer said; “It is an historic day in Scots Law. It serves as a stark message to every company based in Scotland that they must take their employees’ safety seriously no matter where they work around the world.”(BBC News, 12th July).

Despite the alleged risks associated with some machines, the Kenyan government is promoting the use of “simple tea picking machines” (Nation, 10th July) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) is also introducing measures to enable farmers to adopt mechanization in order to lower production costs. (IT News Africa, 10th July).

However, the Kenyan government has vowed to undertake sweeping changes at KTDA for it to “respond better to the needs of the farmers” (The Star, 8th July) It has also stepped up its plan to launch Kenya’s first-ever Tea Academy, which aims to “uplift the livelihoods of roughly 650,000 small-scale tea farmers”.(Kenyans, 20th July). Farmers say that reforms to eliminate tea purchasing and export cartels, who keep prices to farmers low and in the past have been accused of blocking reforms, are long overdue (Nation, 9th July).

The price of tea; adding and losing value

Farmers are protesting the low price of tea across the tea growing world; tea farmers in Uganda say the high prices of fertilizer and lack of legislation has led to poor prices of Ugandan tea on the world market. (African Business, 12th July), while the apex body of small tea growers from the Nilgiris, South India, threatened an indefinite hunger strike if the Tea Board of India fails to set a fair minimum price for made tea at auctions by July 1. (The Times of India,13th July). However, by 21st July the issue had still not been resolved (DT Next, 21st July)

Adding value to tea production through packaging, branding, blending, quality certification and accreditation, can lead to dramatic income rises; about 40% higher according to one commentator. With these higher earnings, the author suggests that smallholder can “put more land under tea, increasing production and profitability” (The Sunday Standard, 29th July). (But, given the current global over-supply of tea depressing prices, farmers may be better off in the long term if they invest in crop-diversification instead.)

Of course, value addition will only increase farmers’ income if tea prices cover the cost of production, and that value is fairly distributed. Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council, asserts that the supermarket practice of offering tea and other products as “loss leaders” is “unethical and [has] no place in 21st century food systems. Many farmers and producers have been squeezed beyond the point of business survival. Honest pricing would also help to reflect the true costs of food that are usually externalised” (The Grocer, 6th July).

New tea production and auction centres

The Indian region of Chhattisgarh is hoping to reduce migration and human trafficking by promoting new tea development, which will offer income to 72 tribal farmers and employment to 105 families, plus benefits of tea tourism (Indian News Weekly, 20th July). With tea cultivation growing in Bangladesh’s north-western district bordering India, another tea auction centre will be established.(Dhaka Tribune, 10th July). Farmers in Kenya also want second auction set up outside Mombasa (The Standard, 7th July). Philippine government officials have sought support from the Chinese business community and diplomats for making the Cordillera Administrative Region a tea production hub (Manila Bulletin, 2nd July).

And the good news is…

A tea estate in Nepal, is focusing on protecting vulnerable women by providing them with work and support. At peak season, more than 200 women work in the fields and factory “knowing they are safe and happy”(World Tea News, 26th July). Afghan migrants are also being offered a chance of a better life through jobs on a Turkish tea plantation. (RFE/RL, 13th July). Technology is being harnessed to improve incomes and education in tea; in Kenya, KTDA has launched a communication tool to provide smallholder tea farmers with notifications of “plucked tea weights, payments, conduct queries on fertiliser disbursements, updates and extension services”. (The Star,21st July). And India’s Woolah Tea is empowering children in Assam’s small tea farms with solar lamps for uninterrupted study (India Blooms, 4th July).