TEA Talk: Are tea cooperatives better for human rights?


The colonial plantation model of tea production is coming under increasing pressure both economically and socially.  A plethora of reports from NGOs, academics and the media have found numerous deep-rooted problems for plantation workers, such as poor housing, sanitation and healthcare as well as low wages.  Tea companies say they can’t afford to improve them with tea prices and demand stagnating.

As a result many plantations are closing – leaving thousands of workers jobless and struggling to survive. Small tea growers are also struggling with a general lack of knowledge about the wider tea market and their dependency on bought leaf factories and intermediaries. Are cooperatives the answer? And if so what model works best to protect the human rights of tea workers and farmers?

Dr Miriam Wenner of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and her team have reviewed current trends in the Indian tea market and two alternative sites in Darjeeling, demonstrating both the potential and the difficulties faced by tea workers in their attempts to “emancipate themselves from the colonial-style tea companies.” Bebika Khawas, who assisted in the research, will update us on workers’ past and present efforts to run ‘tea garden cooperatives’ in the Dooars region of West Bengal, and challenges they have faced.

In other tea-growing regions, there have been other experiences of cooperatives. For example, the cooperative model has been in place for some time in Kenya, originally in the form of Self Help Groups of small tea growers selling to local traders. But, facing challenges in tea quality and low prices, farmers formed the Fintea Growers Cooperative Union and started selling directly to the international tea buyer, Finlays who supply the UK’s Cooperative supermarket. It is Fairtrade Certified.

In this TEA Talk we will hear from Miram and Bebika about their findings from the Darjeeling research and invite tea stakeholders from other countries to join us in exploring which of these models works best to protect the human rights of tea workers and farmers and what more can be done to ensure they are empowered to enjoy a decent standard of living. Narendranath Dharmaraj, former CEO of Harrison Malayalam will join us to explain what he sees as the commercial benefits of worker cooperatives replacing plantations.


Miriam Wenner is a post-doctoral teaching and research associate at the Department for Human Geography, Goettingen (Germany). Her research explores the transformations of political, economic and social orders against the backdrop of competing and overlapping authorities, mainly, but not only, in South Asia. Recent topics include the translation of Fairtrade on tea plantations, moral economies of labour, and the role of private sustainability standards in governing production.

Bebika Khawas is research student at the department of sociology, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, India. Her research focuses on the dynamics of labour in the Tea and Cinchona plantations of Darjeeling hills. She is also working to establish connections between different agencies for tea workers’ solidarity. Currently, she is working on a project for gender rights.

Narendranath Dharmaraj retired, last year, from active plantation management (as Chief Executive and Whole Time Director of Harrisons Malayalam) after a long stint of 46 years in the tea-industry. During this long period, his work spanned South India and parts of Assam, and his employers included Brooke Bond, Unilever and Harrisons Malayam Ltd. He also did a stint in the UK at the headquarters of Unilever Plantation Group, supporting tea supply chain integration amongst other things. As President of UPASI (the apex body of plantation owners of South India) as well as a Member of the Tea Board of India, he has had considerable exposure to environment management too.