Building Tea Back Better

The United Nations is calling on the global community to behave – well, like a community. In its paper ‘Shared responsibility, global solidarity’, the UN sets out three priorities for countries to work on together: First, to tackle the immediate health threat head on; second to cushion the knock-on effect on people’s lives and livelihoods… And third, to learn from this crisis and build back better…”

It’s a phrase that is now echoing across social media, in policy papers, media headlines and in virtual conferences – like the one that THIRST is hosting on June 16th  (see below for details).

Because industries, too, need to act like a community now more than ever. By doing so, not only can they survive this global disaster – but can they can also use it as an opportunity to break out of old bad habits and unhealthy practices and create healthy new ones.

“Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” These are the first words of the constitution of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), drafted in the aftermath of another global disaster, World War 1.

In the aftermath of Covid-19 we could say; “Universal and lasting health and wellbeing can be established only if it is based on upon social justice”. And social justice is something civil society has long been calling for in the tea sector.

Today, the ILO says; “We need to find innovative solutions for the masses of workers and businesses who will be impacted through labour market resilience, support and adaptation to limit the unemployment fallout and the loss of income due to the Covid-19 outbreak.”

What “innovative solutions” can the tea industry draw on not only to protect its workers but to bring about greater social justice?

The 19th century tea estate model established by the British ‘worked’ for nearly two centuries (though at the expense of generations of trapped and impoverished tea workers). But tea no longer commands the kind of prices that enabled tea estates to maintain populations the size of small towns. And society’s tolerance for production based on the meanest of livelihoods for workers is at an all-time low.

On top of the tea industry’s existing economic woes, every link of the tea supply chain has now been hit by the pandemic, from lockdowns stalling harvests, to barred borders preventing transport, to closed cafés and tea stalls around the world axing demand…

If ever there was a time for innovative solutions, that time is now.

And the tea industry, despite its long history and traditional outlook, is not short of examples of innovation. It has trialled new business models; community trading, co-operatives with diversified crops, worker-shareholders with participatory management, small-farmer joint comany ownership, B-corps and traditional companies with ethical investors and employment practices. None of these examples has been perfect – but it is said that perfect is the enemy of good.  Each one is worth examining further to find out what could work best in each context.

It has experimented with new technologies from harvesting and automatic weighing machines to facial recognition software for tea pluckers, from blockchain tracing of tea origins to on-line retailing.

It has also made forays into new approaches to purchasing and pricing, including the price discovery tool for identifying scope to increase worker wages, tea swaps to help stabilise tea farmer incomes, and community trading models premised on fairness. Could it also introduce a floor price for tea that would cover a sustainable cost of production?

While traditional social dialogue has struggled to find its truest form in the tea sector, it has explored new forms of social dialogue in the shape of community development forums and women’s water committees – and has sometimes had social dialogue thrust upon it, such as Kerala’s Pempilai Orumai – Women’s Unity – movement. It is notable that all these new approaches are characterised by a focus on women – who dominate the tea workforce, in numbers if not yet in influence.

The UN paper highlights the post-pandemic choice that will face us: “…go back to the world we knew before or deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to this and future crises.” To do this, it says “we must learn the lessons of yesterday, so [we] are better prepared for the days to come.”

Some of the tea industry’s key “lessons of yesterday” are documented in THIRST’s literature review, Human Rights in Assam Tea Estates – The long view. The problems of low wages, poor housing, sanitation and healthcare for workers are now well known and extend far beyond Assam.

Instead of continuing to deny them, the tea industry needs to acknowledge them and have the courage to move forward and embrace new ideas to overcome them. What seemed unthinkable before the pandemic must now be placed squarely on the table. And the fall-out from the pandemic could provide the impetus it needs. We can and should move from social distancing to social dialogue, from isolation to inclusivity, from PPE distribution to fairer value distribution…

Because, as the UN paper concludes, it is only by “building more equal and inclusive societies” that we will become “more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other challenges we face.”

To explore these innovative solutions join THIRST’s virtual Roundtable meeting ‘Building Tea Back Better – Planning for a fairer, more resilient post-pandemic tea industry’ from 08:00 – 09:30 UTC on June 16th 2020.  Register here.

How is coronavirus affecting your precious cuppa?

The minute there was a whiff of shortage in the air – when the then still unfamiliar word “lockdown” was first being whispered – it triggered in the British a throwback, kneejerk reaction to post-WWII rationing times… The population made a beeline for the supermarkets to stock up against the coming Apocalypse.

Social media images of empty shelves receding into the distance instantly revealed what Brits value most; toilet paper, flour, tinned tomatoes, pasta and hand sanitizer. And they also bought 55% more tea than the same time last year. Tea bags were one of the essential items included in government food parcels for “extremely medically vulnerable people.”

Source: MyLondon: https://www.mylondon.news/news/health/gallery/london-coronavirus-pictures-show-shelves-17883214

But at the end of March, Indian tea estates were forced to shut down in the country’s own coronavirus lockdown, tea factories and auction houses fell silent, transport rumbled to a stop, buyers stopped coming to estates, India’s other big customers – like Iran and China – cancelled their orders, millions of kilos of tea piled up in ports…and the price of Indian tea plummeted by 40%.

Tea pluckers are paid only for the days they come to work, and based on how much tea they pluck. No plucking usually means no pay. The Indian Government said that (despite tea estate owners’ loss of income) workers must be paid… permanent workers, that is. The army of temporary workers,  a growing proportion of India’s tea workforce, had no such protection. In practice, many of the permanent workers missed out on pay too despite the Government ruling.

The more responsible tea estate owners sanitised banknotes (no on-line banking in the remote hills were tea is generally grown) and delivered them door-to-door to prevent possible infection. Others donated free rations to temporary workers who would otherwise have gone hungry.

Meanwhile, workers and managers alike were forced to sit back and watch the fresh young leaves of their most valuable ‘first flush,’ crop – the “Champagne of tea” – grow, darken and toughen… and finally be lost altogether.

Source: Nuxalbari Tea estate, W Bengal. https://twitter.com/NuxalbariTea/status/1243523593129971714/photo/1

A heart-breaking choice now had to be made. To save their businesses – and thousands of jobs – some  tea plantation owners begged the government to let them resume work before they lost the second flush too – the one that grows in after the first flush is harvested. But to save tea workers from the risk of infection with this ruthless virus, other owners – alongside trade unions and NGOs – expressed alarm at the idea of resuming work on tea estates.

The compromise was to allow them to reopen with only 25% to 50% of the workforce working at any one time, strict social distancing, and with handwashing facilities available and personal protective gear provided.

The historic and widespread challenges of low pay, poor sanitation, overcrowded housing and inadequate healthcare could have meant (and could still mean) the virus spreading like wildfire through tea estates. But thankfully, to date, the infection rate in tea growing areas has been minimal. The insular nature of tea estates, a history of tight security managing who enters and leaves them, and where and when the live-in workforce goes has perhaps made it more feasible to manage the spread of the virus in these lush corners of India.

And yet, the freezing of multiple links of the supply chain means that some companies may never recover from this latest brutal hit. We’ve already seen in places like West Bengal, that when tea estates close down, people starve. After generations of dependence, tea workers often have no alternative  skills, land or income sources to fall back on… and repurposing land to grow food where tea has grown for nearly two centuries requires resources that they simply do not have.

The Indian tea industry was already reeling from multiple economic hits pre-COVID19. As it emerges from this latest crisis, going back to the status quo may not be an option. But perhaps from the jaws of disaster, we can draw some glimmers of hope. An opportunity to do things differently. To “build back better” – as the United Nations, and many others are suggesting.

Because of COVID19, the Assam government has offered to step in and take over the hospitals, clinics and creches that, until now, the already overstretched tea companies were expected to provide. If this actually happens (it hasn’t yet, though free medicines have been provided) keeping it in place could mean that tea companies will in future have more cash available to spend on improving workers’ pay and housing (and workers should get better quality healthcare).

Because of COVID19, Fairtrade International has amended its guidelines so that “producer organizations can spend Fairtrade Premium funds more flexibly to minimize the spread of disease…” Keeping that flexibility in place could mean that tea plantation workers get more of their basic needs met. But for this to have significant impact, Fairtrade certified tea will need to be sold in much greater quantities…. only 10 of Assam’s 800 tea estates are Fairtrade certified, for example.

Because of COVID19 panic buying, Brits demonstrated that tea is one of their most valued shopping list items. Being willing to pay a price that reflects this value – and reflects what it would actually cost if workers got decent pay and benefits, would show our supermarkets that we really do care about this. And our supermarkets sharing that price fairly with producers, could be the shot in the arm that the Indian tea industry needs to boost its immunity to the multiple challenges it is facing. The industry only exists, after all, because of Britain’s love of the drink.

A Happy New Decade for tea workers?

Exactly half way through this last decade, the women tea workers of Munnar in South India rose up and said ‘Enough’. They demonstrated against the tea company for keeping them in poverty, against the trade unions for not representing them fairly, and against the politicians not doing anything to protect them. Many tea-pun headlines later, the world’s media concluded that this plucky group of women had “won”[i] (their 20% bonus) and moved on to fresher stories.

Meanwhile the women remain in their tiny dilapidated houses, the bonus that they fought for reverted to the earlier lower rate, their daily wage rate increased slightly but only on condition that they plucked yet more tea.

As the new decade begins, the age old problems persist. But I strongly believe that the tea industry has the power to change. The catalogue of problems that follows does not have to reflect the decade to come. But it can inform a determination to turn the industry around and adopt pricing and labour practices that invite admiration rather than criticism.

“The more things change…”

And a lot has changed in India in the 200 years since tea was first planted there. Independence. Land redistribution by the Communist governments of tea-growing states, Kerala and West Bengal. A burgeoning middle class. Soaring GDP. Yet somehow tea estate workers remain exempt from progress – kept frozen in 19th century feudalism and penury.

The pitifully low wages paid to them, the shoddiness of their housing, their lack of access to clean water and to decent healthcare has come up before.

In 1866, 1900, 1955, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019 to be precise. There are many, many other instances of these issues being raised, but these are the dates of the reports by NGOs, trade unions, the media and academic institutions that I reviewed last year for THIRST – The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea – to trace just how long the problems have persisted, with a focus on Assam.

The answer seems to be… from the very beginning.

That’s why Columbia Law School entitled their 2014 report, “The More Things Change…” referencing the epigram plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change, the more they are the same.”

 “below the poverty line” & “life-threatening malnutrition…”

LOW WAGES REPORTED IN 1900, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016 AND 2019

In 1900, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Henry Cotton, wrote of tea workers there: “Not only were their lives worse than that of American Slaves but their living and working conditions were also deplorable… Their wages remained frozen at the rate of Rs 5 per month for men and Rs 4 for women established by a statute in 1865.[ii]

One hundred and eight years later SOMO said; “… malnutrition on tea estates is still a big problem which leads to all kinds of medical problems including in some cases infant death and starvation.” Two years after that, War on Want reported “The children of tea workers in Assam suffer due to their parents’ low wages and miserable living conditions, as evidenced by the high prevalence of malnutrition.” And in 2016 The Global Network on the Right To Food and Nutrition (GNRTFN) found evidence of “several malnutrition-related deaths” due to management failing to provide mandatory food rations (which are considered part of the pay package).

Columbia Law School, in 2014, raises the issue of deductions from these low wages – an issue raised by Cotton one hundred and thirteen years earlier; “In some instances only a few annas (or pence) found their way into the hands of a coolie as wages in the course of a whole year, the managers having deemed that they were justified in making deductions right and left so long as they kept their labourers in good condition like their horses and their cattle.”

Traidcraft reminds us in 2019 that; “women working on tea estates are paid significantly less than those working in other areas of agriculture, for what is difficult and skilled work.” And Oxfam reports that official recognition of tea workers’ poverty is evidenced by the fact that, shockingly, “half of households interviewed receive government ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards.”

“cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs…”

INADEQUATE HOUSING REPORTED IN 1955, 2010, 2014, 2016 AND 2019

Iris MacFarlane – the wife of a tea plantation manager in the 1950’s – described workers’ accommodation as “…rows of thatched hovels sharing a communal tap.” By the time War on Want reports in 2010, the situation is not much better; “Whilst housing is provided, it is of poor quality and in need of maintenance.” The theme echoes again and again through the decades; Columbia Law School in 2014; workers “live crowded together in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs.” Traidcraft and Oxfam in 2019; “Houses are often extremely old and leaky and the management appears unwilling or unable to make the necessary repairs,” and “workers reported that leaking roofs have meant their families had to use umbrellas inside the house during the rainy season.”

“a network of cesspools…”

LACK OF ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER AND SANITATION REPORTED IN 1955, 2010, 2014, 2016 AND 2019

War on Want reported in 2010 that on Indian tea estates “access to safe drinking water is an acute problem,” citing a study[iii] that found “the same regrettable conditions were the norm rather than the exception.” Again, not much had changed since Iris MacFarlane saw several households sharing a single tap, and thought “No wonder the servants suffered from boils and colds.”

Further reports drip persistently through the ages: Traidcraft in 2019; “The lack of proper toilets throughout estates is a major threat to good hygiene standards”. Columbia Law School in 2014; “The failure to maintain latrines has turned some living areas into a network of cesspools…”  Oxfam in 2019; “despite doctors’ warnings they have no choice but to drink the contaminated water, so diseases such as jaundice, cholera and typhoid are common.”

“they die here very easily…”

POOR HEALTHCARE REPORTED IN 1866, 1955, 2008, 2010, 2014 AND 2019

A 1866 letter from an Assam tea plantation manager with no medical training describes his approach to medical care for 450 people; “ Every morning I have to administer oil of caster to a lot of them. I have splendid receipt for spleen and have cured a lot of chaps, and dysentery too, two of them are dead but they die here very easily so they don’t think much of that.”[iv]

By 1955 there were hospitals and doctors, but Iris MacFarlane points out that “The Doctor Babu,…was trained in Bengali and didn’t speak any of the patients’ languages”. In 2008 SOMO reported that “medical care is not always adequate” although “Pesticides are often applied without proper protection,” and “Back pains, fractures from falling and respiratory illnesses are common.” War on Want echoed this in 2010. And Columbia Law School said in 2014 that “callous and inadequate medical care were cited by workers as the trigger for violent labor disputes on at least three plantations in recent years.”

So, what’s to be done…?

So what do these organisations recommend should be done about these deeply embedded problems? The plethora of suggestions boil down to a few simple recommendations for how consumers, retailers, buying companies, and plantation owners alike can take responsibility for the rights of those who make their industry possible.

  1. Pay more for tea – a price that enables workers to be paid sufficient to live a decent life.
  2. Obey the law – Whatever the failings of the Plantations Labour Act, it is the law and therefore should be obeyed. If prices are too low to enable this, see 1.
  3. Respect workers’ rights – as delineated in the Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation Conventions. If prices are too low to enable this, see 1.
  4. Be transparent – On the back of the tea packet depicting the smiling lady merrily plucking tea in the gentle sunshine, say exactly where the tea was grown so that civil society can help ensure those smiles are real.

“Not another decade without justice…”

The New Year message of Nazdeek – the organisation which has done so much to empower tea workers to fight for their legal rights – makes the plea: “Not another decade without justice.” I second that plea with all my heart. Let us not tolerate another decade of poverty for tea workers. Another decade of malnutrition. Another decade of crumbling hovels. Another decade of cholera-infested water. Another decade of work that makes you sick but provides no cure. And certainly not another two centuries – without justice for tea workers.

Let’s look forward to a decade in which tea producers are paid enough for their tea to make it possible for their workers to claim their rights to decent pay, housing, healthcare and water.

You’ll join me in drinking a cup of kindness to that, won’t you?


Read the full literature review –  Human Rights in Assam Tea Estates – The Long View

References:
[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-34513824[ii] Cotton, Henry. Indian and Home Memories. Fisher Unwin. 1910

[iii] Because of the Plantations Labour Act, the conditions found at the Indian estate directly violate Indian law. Gita Bharali, ‘TheTea Crisis, Heath Insecurity and Plantation Labourers’ Unrest’, in Society, Social Change and Sustainable Development, North Bengal University, 2007

[iv] Letters from Alick & John Carnegie (British tea estate managers), quoted in Green Gold, Alan  Iris MacFarlane, 1955. Ebury Press, (2004)

THIRST for Vision

Human Rights in Assam Tea Estates – The Long View is a literature review covering eight documents spanning 15 years of the Assam tea industry. These documents were written by leading NGOs including SOMO, War on Want, Traidcraft and Oxfam; and by Columbia Law School, the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition – and include a first-hand account from Iris MacFarlane, the wife of a 1955 Assam tea planter. The reports draw on primary research and/or wider literature reviews including local academic studies and historical documents, some dating as far back as 1866.

Four issues have emerged repeatedly during that time: wages, housing, sanitation and health.

There is very little likelihood that claims of shortcomings in these areas by multiple respected organisations over several decades are either false or isolated. It’s time for the tea industry to acknowledge the problems and to work with civil society, trade unions and governments to overcome them. This is particularly important and urgent at a time when the tea industry in general and the Assam tea industry in particular are facing unprecedented economic and environmental challenges.

By accepting that human rights shortcomings are historically built in to the tea system and agreeing to work to find ways to overcome them, the tea industry will be demonstrating a courage, honesty and humanity that will be much more effective in bringing to an end the poverty and suffering of millions of workers and their families, making Assam tea not only one of the most valued and high quality in the world, but also the most ethically produced.

Read the full report: The long view THIRST – Feb 2020
Read the introductory blog A Happy New Decade for Tea Workers

THIRST for Perspective – notes on an Indian tea tour

Tea pluckers take a break and wait for the tea they’ve plucked to be weighed before heading back to work
THIRST CEO Sabita Banerji hears multiple perspectives from the tea estates and companies of West Bengal and Kerala.

During my three week Indian tea industry tour in January this year, I travelled from the urban powerhouses of Delhi and Kolkata to the mountains of Darjeeling through the plains of West Bengal to the hills of Kerala. I attended a Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting in Kerala, a trade union consultation in West Bengal, and a tea tasting session in Kolkata… I met with tea pluckers, CEOs, trade union leaders, NGO activists, supervisors, managers, drivers, brokers, company owners, labourers, a nurse and a night watchman…

Hearing and seeing all these different perspectives was enormously valuable – even though it seemed that almost every perspective contradicted the last one! For example, a manager told me with pride that workers’ children have the security of “inheriting” their parents’ jobs and houses when they retire; but an NGO representative’s perspective was that “Workers have to ‘give their children’ whether they want to or not – it’s known as ‘budlee’ or replacement, otherwise when you retire you have to vacate the house that your family has lived in for 100 years and lose retirement benefits.”

Of course, each perspective has its own truth – or elements of it at least. But the overwhelming picture was the familiar one from the many media exposés, academic studies and NGO reports of the past few years. Despite the well-meaning efforts of many tea plantation owners and managers, despite tripartite wage negotiation, certification and the mandated benefits of the Plantation Labour Act – the rights of tea workers from Darjeeling to my birthplace, Munnar, were very clearly not all being realised.

Their houses were too small for their growing families; their income was too low to meet their basic living costs; their children’s education was too poor quality and their healthcare was too basic and did not reach everyone in the community (I was told more than once by tea workers in West Bengal that “The [estate] hospital is just for show”). The women had too much work and too little pay, the men had too little employment and even less pay, the elderly had too little support, the children had too few prospects… One company director admitted “The tea worker is a bonded labourer – he is a slave – there’s no other word for it. The manager is king”.

A trade union leader hears tea workers’ grievances: a retired tea plucker hasn’t been receiving her rations

The perspective of tea company owners and managers helped to broaden the picture. It is all too easy to put all the blame for workers’ hardships on them. No doubt some are very much to blame, caring more for profit than the wellbeing of their workers, and so ruthlessly exploiting them, but many are doing their best to survive in a punishingly difficult commercial climate, while striving to keep their workforce healthy and happy. Producers may be helping to maintain the oppressive system established a decade and a half ago by India’s colonial rulers, but they are also still trapped within it themselves.

And within that system, producers are dealing with multiple pressures; traders, brands and retailers negotiate aggressively for the lowest prices, but do not guarantee long term sales contracts; governments impose taxes, commandeer land for roads and pylons with woefully inadequate compensation (in West Bengal)– yet treat tea plantations like a “separate country,” requiring the company to provide benefits that it (the government) provides to its other citizens “Estates typically have population of approximately 10,000 people of which only 2,000 are working for the estate, yet the company is responsible for all of them,”  said one company director.

Uprooted tea bushes make way for pylons – with minimal compensation

Trade unions push for higher and higher wages (although another perspective is that they are in cahoots with companies to keep wages low); meanwhile, the tea market is being flooded with low cost, low quality tea from other countries and from increasing numbers of small tea growers… and on top of all that, every couple of years there’s another exposé painting producers as villainous overlords enslaving and crushing their workers underfoot. Hearing their perspective, I started to understand why they can be somewhat defensive in the face of criticism.

Their defence often takes the form of pointing out how much better off their employees are than others, the much lower quality of housing in the poorer Indian states and to poor employment practices in other industries – such as construction – which often provides no benefits at all to workers, not even regular work. “Other farmers in India are committing suicide, ours are not,” one manager reminded me. But, the fact that some are worse off than tea workers doesn’t justify denying them their right to the internationally agreed standards of working and living enshrined in instruments like the ILO conventions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

So, what do producers need to enable them to fulfil their workers’ rights? A decent price for their tea would be a start.

Everyone expects tea to be cheap. As one tea company owner pointed out;“Nobody would say proudly ‘Hey, I’m wearing really cheap perfume!’ or ‘I only drink really cheap whisky’. It’s marketing that has made cheap tea something to aspire to.”  Nevertheless, big money is being made at the packaging and marketing end of the tea value chain. Yet somehow this big money doesn’t reach the farms and plantations in proportionate measure… and so naturally, it doesn’t reach their employees. A tea plucker told me, “Carpenters get Rs 800, masons get Rs 1000, even a coffee maker gets Rs 400  – why should pluckers only get Rs 300 (approximately GBP 3.00) a day?”  

And even less of it reaches the small tea growers –more and more small plots are being turned over to tea (despite land registry rules protecting land meant for food production). One perspective that I heard was that small tea growers are the future, and  need support to get better prices for their products;  another was that that many of them are not smallholders at all, but traders who get rich by buying up large tracts of land in small parcels in the names of different family members, friends, maids, drivers etc. Furthermore, they are free of the regulations binding plantations… or are able to operate under the radar.

70-80% of all tea workers are women “…because we are easier to boss” one tea plucker told me wryly.  A tea company director I met described women as “the backbone of the industry.”  But it is a backbone that is bearing a great weight – both the literal weight of the tea sacks they carry up and down steep hillsides, and the weight of responsibility for earning enough to feed their families and educate their children out of the tea sector. Like women workers everywhere they also face verbal abuse and discrimination. A trade union leader told me women and girls from plantations in West Bengal are at risk of sex trafficking to big cities.

But enough of this doom and gloom. Because I did also see and hear of several promising initiatives to change the status quo. Like the company that had started a partial profit-sharing scheme with regular workers during high season in Darjeeling; or companies that were providing land and training to enable workers to supplement their income from tea plucking during low season; and several who were enhancing healthcare and education with the Fairtrade premium[1]. I learned of new business models being tried out; worker-owned companies with participatory management systems and co-operatives diversifying tea cultivation alongside other crops and income sources. Fairtrade, organic and bio-dynamic certification were helping to make improvements for workers as well as boosting demand from countries like Germany and the UK. And I also heard of promising government initiatives on education, wages, bonuses and land ownership.

I had the opportunity of attending this Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting

My very last meeting on the very last day of my tour was with Rajeshwari Jolly – General Secretary of Pempila Orumai – Unity of Women. This women tea workers’ trade union came into being after Rajeshwari and her colleagues rose up against male trade unionists, management and politicians in 2015 demanding the full 20% bonus they had been expecting all year, and which was under threat. They also demanded better pay and living and working conditions. We met in one of the three rooms of her house, where she and her daughter sleep on the floor, while her husband and son sleep on the bed. She was tired after a long and strenuous day plucking tea to support her family, but there was a fire and determination in her eyes that showed she would not let anything hold her back.

Rajeshwari Jolly, General Secretary of Pempilai Orumai (Unity of Women) trade union.

At the time of what I call the ‘uprising’, the women were not officially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as they were not a formal trade union. Now they have registered as a trade union, but as they only have 240 members, they still do not have the ear of management. I wonder what it will take for their voices to be heard?

I asked all my interviewees what they thought THIRST could do to help make the industry a better environment for workers like Rajeshwari and her colleagues. They said it could be a repository for information, facilitating knowledge sharing between stakeholders in different parts of the country and with other countries; they said it could lobby the industry, governments, consumers and certifiers in order to create a more enabling environment for workers to attain their rights; and they said it could be a bridge between different sections of the tea value chain and its stakeholders to try to help overcome the mutual distrust and misunderstanding that has built up over the industry’s 150 year history.

The first-hand information and grass-roots contacts I was able to gain on this trip will feed in to a more in-depth study of the state of the global tea industry. That study will inform how THIRST, and the civil society actors it will bring together, can best help the industry transform the lives of tea workers, farmers and their communities for the better – and in so doing, transform the industry itself for the better.

If Pempilai Orumai is the unity of women, THIRST aims to be the unity of all those – including grass roots organisations like Pempilai Orumai – seeking to usher the tea sector into the 21st century, making it healthy, thriving, humane and fair– and to empower the millions of women and men that make the tea industry possible to demand their rights and be fully and meaningfully heard.

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[1] There were some lessons to be learned about how the Fairtrade premium could be used to better address the fundamental needs of tea workers and their families; I’m discussing these with Fairtrade International, who are in the process of reviewing their Hired Labour Standards for tea.