Highlights: New briefing on GBVH risks in tea; UN says Unilever ethnic violence compensation inadequate; S Indian farmers hunger strike for better prices; Assam rules $0.21 daily wage increase
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- THIRST News
- This month’s news in detail
- Forest preservation and organic farming tackles climate concerns
- Women tea workers at increased risk of fatal snakebites
- New rules and old struggles for smallholder tea farmers
- Job losses hit workers across the tea sector
- Unilever compensation inadequate – UN
- Auctions new and old
- “Complex and sensitive” land rights issues for tea communities
- Low tea prices hinder much needed wage increases
- Tea prices rise and demand falls in European markets
- And the good news is…
New publication: ‘Just consent’ – risk factors for GBVH in the tea sector
Following the recent exposés of sexual exploitation of women tea workers in Malawi and Kenya THIRST and Women Working Worldwide have published a new report outlining the multiple risk points for gender based violence and harassment in the tea sector of any country and how the systems and culture of tea production heightens those risks. The report’s title, ‘Consent. Just consent, then you can come to work’ quotes one of the managers featured in the BBC Panorama/BBC African Eye documentary in February this year. Is designed to help the tea industry identify where and how it can reduce the risk of GBVH and to ensure survivors have access to justice.
Tea/Cha/Chai exhibition – London
THIRST was one of the ‘critical friends’ invited to help shape a new exhibition that has just opened at the Horniman Museum, London. It “reveals tea’s complex history and myriad of meanings – from its popularisation and globalisation connected to stories of imperialism and colonial violence, to inspiring artistic expression, cultural customs and national identities, it is simultaneously deeply personal and political.” The exhibition also explores the lives and work of modern-day tea workers through artefacts, text and video footage, the role that tea plays in today’s multicultural London, and the chemical reactions that take place in the brain when tea is drunk. The exhibition runs until July 7th 2024. More information
New on THIRST’s Knowledge Hub
- Smoke and Ashes
by Amitav Ghosh. Published by Harper Collins, 15th July 2023 (& Macmillan February 2024)
Ghosh’s book investigates the interplay between plants and humans. It explores the profound impact this has had on India’s and China’s colonial histories, and on the USA’s present-day opioid crisis. Ghosh’s meditation shows the pivotal role of the humble poppy in shaping economic fortunes, geopolitical rivalries and cultural exchange. But first Ghosh discusses the remarkable journey and impact of another plant, tea, in India’s colonial context. Through a bifocal lens of historical and environmental consciousness, Smoke and Ashes unravels plants’ influence on geopolitics, economics and society. (Extract from book review in Dawn, August 27 2023)
- Tea and Solidarity –Tamil Women and Work in Post-war Sri Lanka
By Mythri Jegathesan. Published by University of Washington Press & Tambapanni Academic Publishers, 2023
Jegathesan points out that males dominate the entire spectrum of life in the plantation Tamil community, familial, social and political. But the men take up only issues they consider to be of “general” interest such as wages, Collective Agreements, and the State’s programs for the workers, avoiding women’s issues relating to work, health and birth control. Plantation women feel the need for women overseers who will understand their problems better.
- Rising wage theft in tea industry: Consequences of ineffective labor market institutions
By Published by Labor History, 30th May 2023
This article discusses the processes and methods involved in appropriating wages through strict-compliance and non-compliance of different laws, leading to various economic and social rights violations in tea plantation which is one of the oldest industries in India. It argues that this results from the exploitative ‘control and command’ system, uneven power relations, various information asymmetry on value share, and ineffective existing labor market institutions.The study, conducted in 2019, is based on 510 workers across 50 tea estates from 9 major tea-producing districts of Assam, India.
Update on the Human Rights Impact Assessment of the tea sector
Stakeholders of the tea sector including workers’ and farmers’ representatives, producers, traders, packers, brands, retailers, government bodies, NGOs, and academics are invited to join THIRST’s virtual roundtable on the root causes of the gap between human rights of tea workers and farmers in principle and in practice. It will be an opportunity to reflect together on the findings of THIRST’s latest research, to add your own insights, and deepen our combined understanding of the issues that will inform a ‘highway map’ co-created by the tea industry and civil society. Save the date/time: 10:00-12:00 GMT on Tuesday 31 October. For more information please:
Tea News Summary
Disclaimer: The following updates consist of a summary of articles from the media – 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.
The majority of farmers – including tea farmers – say that the climate crisis is already impacting their incomes, but efforts to tackle it include organic tea farming in India and measures to preserve China’s ancient forest tea culture using a system called ‘understory planting’ that harnesses the forest’s natural ecological system, thwarting diseases and pests while supplying natural nutrients. Conventional smallholder tea farmers in Kenya are facing new rules that mean they can only sell green leaf to the factory they are registered to. Small tea growers in India are protesting against low prices – in the South this protest has taken the form of a hunger strike.
Women workers on tea plantations in India (and potentially other countries) are particularly vulnerable to fatal snake bites as it is mainly women who pluck the tea, pushing though the tight canopy with no visibility of what lies on the ground beneath. Small and medium estates rarely have the necessary medical facilities and antidotes to save them.
Large tea plantations in Kenya say they are facing unprecedented challenges, making mechanised harvesting essential, although workers’ representatives say this causes job losses. Job shortages and non-payment of wages and other dues on Indian tea estates is leading to increased migration as demonstrated by record numbers of enrolments on the government’s migrant worker portal.
Unilever announced that it would pay compensation to a group of former employees who had missed out on the payments made after the 2007 ethnic violence in Kenya in which many Unilever workers were injured, raped or killed. However, a UN working group has expressed “deep concern about lack of access to justice and effective remedy to the former Unilever workers”.
While Bangladesh has set up a third auction centre which should boost the local economy, India has decided to revert to the old ‘English’ auction system after experimenting with the ‘Bharat’ system in which anonymous bidders choose to accept or reject automatic incremental bids.
Kenya’s representative for large tea plantations has outlined the challenges and achievements of the industry and explained the complexity and sensitivity of historical land injustices; he asserted the lawful ownership of the disputed land by large plantations and said they have “actively engaged with relevant government authorities and stakeholders to ensure that land issues are addressed legally and justly, while upholding the rule of law.” India’s W Bengal Government has withdrawn from an assessing the scope of granting land rights to tea garden dwellers amid suspicions that the survey in fact aimed to oust them in favour of tourism infrastructure.
Tensions between workers’ need for wage improvements and tea companies’ need to keep overheads down due to stagnant prices persist in India, and while the government of Assam has ruled that tea workers’ daily wages should increase by Rs 18 (0.21USD), the national government’s subsidy to public sector workers and pensioners to meet increasing costs has not risen in 33 years. Healthy wages depend on a healthy market, but consumption of coffee overtook tea in the UK for the first time last month, while a French supermarket said tea prices had risen in real terms due to reduced packaging size.
And the good news is that a Sri Lankan firm has set up a health insurance scheme specifically for tea workers. Staying with good health news; ingredients in tea have been shown to benefit your brain, your heart and even your bones.
THIS MONTH’S TEA NEWS IN DETAIL
Forest preservation and organic farming tackles climate concerns
About 76 per cent of farmers are worried about the future impact of climate change, while 71 per cent say it already has had an impact on their farms and incomes, a recent survey by life science company Bayer Group found. (The Standard 23rd September). Tea yields in China and Taiwan saw the lowest levels of rainfall in 30 years last year. Overall tea production in China looks set to fall by around 15% this year as a result… (Radio Free Asia 16th September). But in more positive news, China’s Yunnan region is taking measures to preserve ancient tea forest culture. Local communities established a layered growing system known as “understory planting” with canopy trees at the top, tea trees in the middle, and smaller plants at the bottom. This setup optimizes the growing conditions for tea trees. This approach also harnesses the forest’s natural ecological system, thwarting diseases and pests while supplying natural nutrients. Consequently, they produce high-quality organic tea leaves (People’s Daily Online 21st September). While India’s Arunachal Pradesh, is trialling organic farming, which, if successful will mean “farmers will be enabled and it will also help the future generation to earn sustainably, while ensuring food security for both suppliers and consumers.” (The Arunachal Times 26th September).
Women tea workers at increased risk of fatal snakebites
In 2021, a study by India’s Assam Agricultural University enumerated venomous snakebite as one of the occupational hazards for tea workers, especially for women who harvest tea. “Tea bushes are planted close to each other to make harvesting easier,” says Assam tea plucker, Bhumji. “This means when we venture into the middle of the field, our feet are completely hidden from view. And we barely have time to take any notice of whatever is underneath. We are required to pluck a certain amount of tea leaves each day.”
Many company-owned big plantations have antivenom treatment facilities these days. However there is still a critical lack of snakebite management in several medium and small tea plantations. According to a hospital worker who recently successfully treated a snake-bite victim said “All tea garden health centres are supposed to have snakebite treatment facilities, but most of the gardens still lack access to antivenom… The need of the hour is to make antivenom available within 20 km of any locality so that a snakebite patient can access proper treatment within one hour of the bite,” (Northeast Now 9th September).
New rules and old struggles for smallholder tea farmers
The Tea Board of Kenya has laid down new rules for all transporters and factory owners. These include registration of vehicles involved in the transportation of green leaf, which must meet certain new standards. Further, “A tea factory shall sign a commercial green leaf transportation contract with all its commercial green leaf transporters supplying green leaf to the factory and avail valid copies of the agreements to the board,” and no truck should collect or transport green leaf from growers not registered with their factories or receive green leaf from a transporter not registered to it. (Kenyans 26th September). Tea farmers in the Murang’a district will benefit from Chinese investment into an orthodox tea processing plant in a 5-year partnership which aims to export 2,000 kilos of tea per day. (NTV 3rd September).
In South India, small tea farmers went on hunger strike demanding fair price for green leaf tea. (The Times of India 2nd September), claiming that…“When you sip a cup of tea, enjoying the morning, refreshing yourself, we farmers are getting only 9 to 12 paise for it” (Manorama 20th September). Assam smallholder tea growers also protested the fact that the government set price of Rs 20 per kg was not being fulfilled. (The Sentinel 9th September).
Job losses hit workers across the tea sector
Large-scale tea firms in Kenya’s Rift Valley, say they face numerous challenges, some of them threatening their survival, and have had to implement a number of cost-saving measures including mechanising harvesting. But the process has been contested. The people who work on their farms say mechanising tea harvesting is an elaborate scheme to deny them an income. In a country that faces a monumental challenge of unemployment, their sentiments are supported by politicians. (The Standard, 26th September).
The administration of West Bengal, India’s Jalpaiguri district has received close to 5,500 applications from migrant workers and their family members for enrolment in the portal that the state government has launched for migrant workers. A senior trade union leader said that in tea gardens, new recruitment has virtually stopped, and hence many youths become migrant workers. (The Telegraph Online 19th September). Some representatives of those that do have jobs in the estates allege that “Tea garden managements refuse to deposit their share of workers’ Provident Fund, deliberately make mistakes in identification records to prevent them from claiming benefits” (Disha Bytes 15th September).
Unilever compensation inadequate – UN
Unilever has announced plans to make payments over 2007 plantation attacks to 77 Kenyan tea pickers who missed out on original payments…However, the workers maintain they were not adequately compensated. (The Guardian 25th September). The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and five UN Special Rapporteurs have written to Unilever expressing deep concern about lack of access to justice and effective remedy to the former Unilever workers, who were brutally assaulted. (Solicitors Journal 26th September).
Auctions new and old
The Tea Board of India plans to reintroduce the old ‘English’ auction system instead of the ‘Bharat’ auction system (in which anonymous bidders choose to accept or reject automatic incremental bids), which has failed to increase tea prices. (Millenium Post 25th September). Meanwhile, a third tea auction centre has begun operations in Bangladesh‘s northwest bordering district of Panchagarh. (The Daily Star 3rd September). It is said to have “facilitated the growth of farming, job generation, trade and business in the region.” (The Business Post 19th September).
“Complex and sensitive” land rights issues for tea communities
As part of a wide ranging interview about his country’s tea sector, Apollo Kiarii, CEO Kenya Tea Growers Association said “The assertion of historical land injustices is a complex and sensitive issue in Kenya’s agricultural sector, including the tea industry. While it is true that historical land issues exist, it is crucial to note that the ownership and tenure of land held by Large Scale Tea Producers are lawful and adhere to national land tenure regulations. KTGA recognises the need for a fair and transparent resolution of land matters. We have actively engaged with relevant government authorities and stakeholders to ensure that land issues are addressed legally and justly, while upholding the rule of law.” (The Star 24th September). India’s West Bengal government has also been attempting to tackle land rights issues; however, it has withdrawn a land assessment exercise to assess the scope of granting land rights to tea garden dwellers amid fears that the survey in fact aimed to remove them from their lands and make way for tourism infrastructure. (News Click 15th September).
Low tea prices hinder much needed wage increases
In India, Assam’s chief minister has increased the wages of tea workers to Rs. 250 (Brahmaputra Valley) and Rs. 228 (Barak Valley) respectively with effect from October 1st (Pratidin Time 22nd September). In other Indian tea regions, trade unions sought a 20% bonus for tea garden workers in Dooars and Terai of West Bengal, while planters’ bodies asked them to reconsider their demand because of the financial stress they are under (The Hitavada 23rd September), and Kerala plantation workers’ representatives claim that in the past 33 years, there has only been an increase of 2 paise in the Dearness Allowance [a cost of living adjustment that the Government pays to public sector employees and pensioners]. (The Hindu 20th September).
A state-level multi stakeholder discussion was held by the Assam Labour Department and International Labour Organization (ILO) in Guwahati proposing adequate wages for tea plantation workers (Time 3rd September). However, according to CRISIL, a ratings, research, and risk services company, the profitability of Indian tea companies had fallen 150 basis points last financial year, primarily because of an increase in wages, and they are likely to see 8% revenue degrowth this fiscal year led by a decrease in exports. (ANI 15th September).
Low tea prices may also be behind low wages in Bangladesh where a panel of labour experts has proposed a series of recommendations to amend the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 (The Business Post 14th September), while workers of Tarapur tea garden in Sylhet blocked a road for two hours demanding payment of their due salaries (New Age Bangladesh 24th September).
Tea prices rise and demand falls in European markets
Tea workers’ wages and working conditions, and smallholder tea farmers’ income is dependent on the market they are supplying. Last month, coffee overtook tea consumption in the UK, one of tea’s most important markets historically speaking (Apple Podcasts Tea Biz). Prices of tea in Europe are rising in real terms; French supermarket Carrefour said a bottle of Lipton Ice Tea, produced by PepsiCo[/Unilever], shrank to 1.25 liters (0.33 gallons) from 1.5 liters (0.3 gallons), resulting in a 40% effective increase in the price per liter despite ease in raw material cost (Yahoo Finance 15th September).
And the good news is…
The Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, in partnership with the Ministry of Water Supply & Estate Infrastructure Development and the Plantation Human Development Trust, has introduced life and health insurance programme tailored to Sri Lanka’s tea plantation workers. (Daily News 19th September).
Another way tea workers, and all of us, can protect our health is by drinking the tea they produce, according to Dr Michael Mosley on, who explored on BBC Radio 4 how the bioactive ingredients in ordinary tea can benefit your brain, your heart and even your bones. (BBC Radio 4 19th September).
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