THIRST News Update – September 2023

THIRST News Update – September 2023

Highlights: THIRST/WWW GBVH risk factors in tea briefing due out 18/9; S Indian tea farmers’ hunger strike re-prices; S Asian tea owners challenge gov. pay deals; tribals fight for tea land rights with arrows

Image: ‘Armed with awareness, women tea estate workers fight back against gender-based violence’: Herstory 

Help THIRST to help you

Please consider making a donation to help us continue to help you.  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.





Upcoming briefing paper: ‘”Consent, Just consent, then you can come to work”: Risk factors for GBVH in the tea sector

In light of recent court cases and exosés over sexual exploitation in the tea sector, THIRST has collaborated with Women Working Worldwide and tea industry sustainability expert, Michael Pennant-Jones, to produce a briefing paper to raise awareness of the specific risk factors for gender-based violence and harassment in the tea sector. While GBVH is a universal problem, there are specific ways in which risks manifest in this sector, in particular the employment practices and structure of tea plantations. The paper will be published on our What’s New pages (and on WWW’s website) on Monday 18th September. 

Charting the history, economics, culture, and philosophy of Cha/Chai/Tea

THIRST was invited to be one of the ‘critical friends’ in the development of the ‘Cha, Chai, Tea’ exhibition which opens at London’s Horniman Museum in October 2023. This comprehensive exhibition covers the history, economics, culture and art of cha/chai/tea and includes the voices, images and artefacts of modern-day tea workers and farmers.

New on THIRST’s Knowledge Hub

Income Stabilization Mechanism for Smallholder Tea Farmers in Kenya

Agriculture and Food Authority, 2016

Although payments to smallholder tea growers in Kenya in 2016 was reportedly among the highest in the world (75 percent of the auction prices), the decline in productivity among other factors, culminated into drastic changes in the earnings in the sector. The objectives of the study were twofold: 1. To determine the causes of decline in smallholder tea productivity and to assess the viability of a tea replanting program leading to increased productivity and stable household incomes and 2. To identify alternative enterprises to tea and diversification strategies that would help tea farmers to mitigate risks emanating from market related shocks

Visit Knowledge Hub

Update on tea sector Human Rights Impact Assessment: Root Cause Analysis sponsorship opportunity 

Having completed interviews, focus group discussions and surveys with 198 individuals throughout the tea sector value chain in a wide range of origin and tea importing countries, THIRST has now completed the draft of the Root Cause Analysis of the human rights gap in the tea sector that was identified in our literature review – Human Rights in the Tea Sector – The Big Picture. We offer tea stakeholders the opportunity to sponsor the publication of this comprehensive, full value-chain report that will offer the sector an invaluable foundation for developing practical solutions within a broader ‘highway map’ for the future of the tea industry. To discuss sponsorship options, please contact us.

Contact THIRST 

Back to Contents

News from our Network

Updated Fairtrade guidance on ‘Retroactive correction of wages in high inflation situations’

Following discussions between NAPP and Sri Lanka tea stakeholders, Fairtrade has updated its guidance to tea companies in Sri Lanka on compensating hired labour in tea estates in light of the very high cost of living inflation they are experiencing. The guidance says “Fairtrade understand that the new recommendation does not fully compensate loss due to inflation incurred by workers’ wages. However, it gives relief to workers’ losses and guarantees a partial financial feasibility for producers to pay as a “relief package” towards the wage loss from workers. The corrective measure should be in line with the requirement 3.5.4 related to “real wages that should be increased annually to continuously close the gap with living wage”, therefore any relief package should focus on the value of wages and no other forms of remuneration or in-kind benefits.” The full explanatory document can be found here.

Disappointment at Bangladesh Minimum Wage board decision

Philip Gain,  a researcher and director at the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) has spoken out about what he sees as the failure of Bangladesh’s Minimum Wage Board in “framing and presenting acceptable recommendations on the tea workers’ wage structure”. He criticises the delay in the wage board’s formalisation of the new BDT 170 daily wage rate – mandated by the Prime Minister in August last year, and reports disappointment at an abrupt decision that fixing tea workers’ wages will no longer be a negotiation between the tea workers’ union, the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU) and the owners’ apex body, Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), but will now be done every five years by the Minimum Wage Board. Two workers’ representatives in succession have resigned from the board  in protest. Gain goes on to raise related issues of housing and pensions, arguing that “The tea workers and their communities, tied to the labour lines for five generations, must be treated as dignified people. The government has a pioneering role to play in ending the discrimination of labour legislations and practices.

The Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund

In light of the recent exposés on sexual exploitation in tea estates more attention is rightly being paid to the issue of the safety of women in tea supply chains. Although the most recent cases were in Africa, a promising initiative in India acknowledges that the issue is not an African one alone, but exists in all tea origins. The Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund (WSAF) – a programme by IDH, Ethical Tea Partnerships, Unilever, Tesco, Twinings, and Taylors – was launched in 2021 as a “gender-transformative programme” in 29 tea estates. It is creating awareness about gender-based violence in tea value chains, engaging and encouraging their suppliers—tea estates and bought-leaf factories (BLFs)—to participate and adopt women’s safety measures and response mechanisms. According to IDH’s WSAF manager, Manisha Majumdar, more than 80% of the 350 tea gardens across Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu now have a functioning Internal Committee with a woman president. We look forward to hearing more about the resulting impacts for women as the initiative progresses.

Exploring ideas of plants and plantations

A new book and an interview with a long established author bring fascinating insights into the history, economy, philosophy and environment of tea plantations. Amitav Ghosh’s new non-fiction book, Smoke and Ashes, “discusses the remarkable journey and impact of … tea, in India’s colonial context… [and] unravels plants’ influence on geopolitics, economics and society.” The renowned writer and cultural anthropologist, Sarah Besky, author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India, expands on her thoughts about plantations in an interview with the Times of India (12th August). She says “A plantation is inherently a construction of capital, power & the aim to convert landscapes into commodity-bearing places. For Americans, the plantation is part of a bygone era… In S Asia it persists as primary way tea is produced.”


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.

Darjeeling tea planters and Trinitea’s smart solutions for debugging the climate crisis

Changes in climate are resulting in the emergence of new pests, and of existing ones moving into new areas. For example, the tea mosquito bug (species of Helopeltis) which normally affects tea production in the plains, is now also affecting crops in high elevation plantations in northern and southern states of India.(Down To Earth, 11th August). But tea planters in Darjeeling have recently been introducing a range of exemplary strategies to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis including replanting shade trees, replacing firewood with gas for workers’ housing, development of drought-resistant tea bush clones, water management through organic mulching and reverting to the original ‘China bush’ tea plants whose long tap roots can access water from deep underground. (World Tea News, 21st August).

The Trinitea initiative of the Solidaridad Network is adopting six approaches to create ‘smart tea villages’: 1) Weather smart:  using mobile apps for receiving local weather information throughout the year. 2) Water smart: using better irrigation facilities and saving of water for more crops. 3) Carbon smart: restoring degraded soil, using less water, reducing the use of fertilisers and improving productivity. 4) Knowledge smart: tea experts sharing knowledge through mobile phones plus regular training by the Assam Agricultural University’s (AAU). 5) Energy smart:  using solar and biogas plants to reduce the use of energy from fossil fuels and 6) Market smart: motivating farmers to work together so that they have better collective bargaining power in the market (India Times, 1st August)

Back to Contents

Stark contrast in situation of S Indian and Kenyan tea smallholders

Smallholder tea farmers in South India went on hunger strike over their long-standing demand that the Tea Board sets a fair price for green leaf tea. A recent study by the horticulture department sets the cost of production of green tea leaves at INR 22.50/kg, while the Tea Board has fixed the price at INR 14.35/kg (The Times of India, 2nd September) A “pre-bidding bench price” for tea dust at auctions is reportedly being discussed by brokers, buyers, farmers’ organisations and the Ministry of Agriculture, to which the Tea Board is attached. The Executive Director of the Tea Board is also advocating “increasing the efficiency of farm management and cost-cutting through collective farming methods and techniques through mechanisation.” (On Manorama,16th August)

In Kenya, on the other hand, different kinds of buyers are competing for smallholder tea farmers’ produce, putting them in a strong position. New tea factories and ‘micro tea processors’ are springing up in various parts of the country and competing with the established multinational companies. A farmer in the Nandi region said “The current competitive market now favours us as farmers in the region. It limits the chances of being exploited by brokers and expands the market to sell our produce at good prices”. (Business Daily, 2nd August). However, legislators in the Kirinyaga region warn that “if they continue selling their produce to private millers, it will lead to the collapse of local factories.” (Citizen Digital,1st August). Authorities in Kericho county are exploring the possibility of establishing a tea auction centre for farmers to market their produce locally. (Kenya News Agency, 23rd August).

Their situation was helped by the fact that Kenya tea export prices hit eight-year high to hit Ksh335,407 ($2,351) per tonne in May (The East African, 2nd August) driven by a weak Kenyan shilling and increased demand. (Zawya, 2nd August). However, Kenyan tea producers called for government help with tax issues (Africa Intelligence, 21st August).

Back to Contents

South Asian tea estate owners challenge government pay agreements

Numerous protests took place last month across South Asia by tea estate workers demanding better pay and conditions – often despite wage setting rulings by their respective governments. In India, the Calcutta High Court upheld an interim increase in the minimum wage of tea workers to INR 250/day for tea-plantation, dismissing a case filed by tea garden owners challenging the government’s advisory on the INR 18 wage rise. It also directed the state of Bengal to finalise the minimum wage settlement for these workers within six months. (Millennium Post, 4th August) and (Live Law, 3rd August).  Meanwhile tea garden workers from an Assam tea estate staged a protest against “the exploitation of workers” and a range of specific issues including lack of healthcare facilities. (The Assam Tribune, 19th August). And the Darjeeling tea industry was described as a “patient in ICU” virtually on its death bed, prompting pleas for government subsidies and protection against imports from Nepal. (Business Standard, 17th August)

Last year’s Bangladesh wage protests and settlement (with government intervention) have still not resolved issues for tea workers; a sit-in was staged at one tea estate protesting for the provision of weekly food rations and a regular wage, as well as demanding punitive measure against tea estate owners for failing to deliver these (Bangladesh Post, 27th August) and (The Business Standard, 21st August). And the workers of another two tea estates staged a protest march and human chain to demand seven points including payment of outstanding wages. (Bangladesh Posts English, 2nd August). Most of the workers are women – they play vital role in industry as well as supporting their families, but they are plagued by malnutrition, stigma, financial uncertainty, lack of awareness re-gender issues, lack of hygiene, early marriage, malnutrition and anaemia caused by excessive childbearing. These findings are the results of surveys by Bangladesh’s National Institute for Health Development and Research, Centre for Injury Prevention and Research (CIPRB), Ministry of Health, Unicef and Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) (The Daily Star, 8th March).

Tea workers in Nepal are demanding “employment agreements, a contribution-based social security scheme, and an increase in the minimum wage” claiming that “Tea workers are starving since they are not getting the wages and facilities set by the government.” (Khabarhub, 5th August) and (The Kathmandu Post, 3rd August).

Descendants of migrant workers from India to Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber plantations have undertaken a three-week long pilgrimage retracing the journey their ancestors took when they first arrived in Sri Lanka and highlighting their current hardships. (The Sunday Times, 20th August). The 105,000 people from Sri Lanka’s million-strong Malaiyaha (hill country) are “landless tea workers… who live under a constant threat of forced deportation” despite supplying an industry that earns crucial foreign exchange for the country. (UCA News, 7th August)

But it is not only in Asia, and not just tea estate workers that have been staging pay protests. The  “low-paid, predominately woman workforce” at a Tetley (Tata) Tea factory in the UK voted for strike action in a dispute over pay last month (BBC News, 5th August) sparking fears of a tea bag shortage in the UK. They called off the strike following a new offer of a 7% pay rise which will be backdated to 1 April 2023. (Grocery Gazette, 25th August)

Back to Contents

Settlements and clashes over tea land rights

Clashes between tribal people and the new owners of a small plantation in India has resulted in injuries. When workers arrived to pluck the tea, members of the local tribal community tried to stop them, saying that the land of the tea garden belonged to them and could not be sold to others. The new ‘owners’ opened fire on them with pellets and they responded by firing arrows. Tea workers claimed the new owner of the estate orchestrated the attack. (The Times of India, 22nd August)

Meanwhile, the Bengal government has issued notification to grant land rights not just to tea workers but also to the “retiring landless labourers & long-term occupiers of tea garden”, an important and longstanding demand of the tea-growing areas of this region. (The Telegraph, 2nd August). However, there have been some uncertainties around the interpretation of this land rights distribution (East Mojo, 20th August)

Back to Contents

Adding value at source

With tea prices at auction remaining relatively stagnant for many years, tea producers are looking at other ways to monetise their crop. One approach that is being adopted “From Scotland to Nepal” is through “immersive” tea tourism. This not only brings additional revenue, but increases awareness about tea production, quality and value. “When people understand the challenges and the process of making tea, all types of orthodox tea may fetch better prices. This is central to keeping the tea worker on the planation because without economic improvement, the next generation of tea plantation labor will simply look for jobs in the city.” (World Tea News, 23rd August) Bangladesh’s tourism authorities are also exploring the potential of ‘tea and coffee tourism’ to boost the country’s rural economy. (The Financial Express, 5th August)

Another approach is to increase the intrinsic value of the tea itself. A number of tea companies are seeking to move from CTC to orthodox production in order to achieve this. For example, Ikumbi Tea Factory in Kenya, has signed an agreement with a Chinese firm to support the production and exportation of orthodox tea. (Kenya News Agency, 31st August). China is also embarking on a cooperation with Sri Lanka in tea trade and promotion. (Colombo Page, 19th August)

But if tea fails completely, alternatives must be found. Workers in “sick” tea gardens of West Bengal are being supported by local nonprofits to supplement their income with alternative income generation activities such as growing black pepper around areca nut trees and establishing kitchen gardens. (IDR, 22nd August).  

Back to Contents

More Indian tea worker deaths/injuries from road accidents and wild animals

Nine women tea plantation workers returning from work in a jeep died when the jeep overturned and fell into a gorge. The workers had migrated to find work in Kerala, S India, after losing their jobs in the neighbouring South Indian state of Tamil Nadu during the COVID pandemic (The News Minute, 25th August) Elsewhere in India, an Assam tea factory worker has died after his leg became entangled in CTC machinery. (Guwahati Plus, 28th August).

Leopards often rest between thickset tea bushes and can be surprised by workers pushing between the bushes to  pluck leaves or spray insecticides or fertilizers, leading to attacks which are sometimes fatal. In Assam, workers are protesting at the delay in treating the victim of one such recent attack. (Pratidin Time, 24th August). In Sri Lanka, an awareness raising program has been launched by the Research and Training Division of the Department of Wildlife Conservation to reduce risks to both people and animals. (Colombo Page, 12th August)

Back to Contents

…And the good news is

Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company CEO Dilhan C. Fernando feels that “The future for Ceylon Tea has never been brighter than today” because the younger generation have been conditioned by the COVID pandemic to look for “products that offer health and wellness”. He points out that 45,000 research papers “confirm the natural antioxidant goodness in tea,” scientifically proving that “tea has a therapeutic impact on every single lifestyle disease such as diabetes. Tea enhances cognitive ability but also enhances mood. Tea reduces the impact of stress on the human body. Tea reduces the possibility of stroke.” (Daily FT, 29th August)  

Back to Contents


To get this update sent directly to your inbox, please:

Contact THIRST