Archive for September, 2015

My Thoughts on Wages of Tea Pickers in India

Saturday, September 26th, 2015
Tea Picking In Darjeeling

Tea Plucker in Darjeeling, India

I have prevaricated about writing about the recent BBC investigation into conditions on some Assam tea estates, but felt that I really had to write something.  I did give a 2 minute response on BBC Radio York, but that was a tongue-tied minute or two.

I was dismayed by the conditions and experiences of tea workers shown in File on Four’s investigation.  But I was not surprised.  We (that’s everybody) all know, deep down, that tea is a product founded during colonialism and continued under unequal power relations.

Isn’t that why Fairtrade was started in the first place? Isn’t that part of the rationale behind the Ethical Tea Partnership, Tea2030 and the Rainforest Alliance?  Doesn’t Oxfam campaign on policies of unfair pay, unequal power and poor conditions within the tea industry all the time?

Yet tea remains an industry dominated by multi-national corporations, many with their own plantations – Twinings and Fortnum & Mason by the Weston Family; Lipton and PG Tips by Unilever; and Tea Pigs and Tetley Tea by Tata and so on.

However, while Oxfam released a report on wages in the tea industry in 2013, not much seems to have happened since.  Tea workers in Assam earned INR 115 versus a minimum wage of INR 177 (BBC, 2015), as against INR 89 and INR 159 respectively in 2012 (Ethical Consumer, 2013).  I think the ideas of the tea industry are sensible but far too gently paced, and the tea majors could work much quicker to transform the social conditions of the tea industry.  Tea2030 includes all the key UK players, so it is not as if they don’t have the power nor the management know-how to undertake change?

I must admit to a feeling of powerlessness ourselves . Firstly, as a micro-tea business, we sell less tea than your average Starbucks outlet.  So we must rely on the social standards set by outside agencies when buying our teas – Fairtrade, Organic and UTZ.  And I did naively think that by buying mainly Fairtrade teas we would be automatically protected from low wages, but this only requires a minimum wage to be paid with the commitment to move towards a living wage.  But what we don’t want, or expect to be providing, is certified poverty through Steenbergs-branded products.

So I have double-checked wages, conditions and child labour at the main suppliers of the teas we buy tea; these are summarised below.  We have been assured that no children are employed in any of the plantations, and that Indian law requires that no-one under 18 years old can be employed on plantations.

Tables on (i) Wages at Tea Plantations from which Steenbergs sources its main teas; (ii) Social conditions at those tea plantations

Analysis of Daily Pay Rates At Indian And Sri Lankan Tea Estates In 2015

Table describing social and environmental conditions at certian tea estates in India and Sri Lanka

It is up to us to address these issues by how we (in Britain, Europe and the USA) trade.  We must be mindful of that the rules and laws in India, for example, are for them to determine rather than for us to seek to impose any neo-colonial views onto them from outside.Which begs the questions: (i) why were 14 year olds working on Assam tea plantations if the law is no-one below 18 years old can work.  I accept that extreme poverty was the underlying reason given, which relates back to the inadequacy of wages paid and insufficient safety nets when wage-earners become ill or incapacitated; (ii) how are wages calculated?; (iii) where are the unions to protect the workers on  the tea estates in the BBC report?

My suspicions are as follows:

  • Minimum wages for plantation workers are lower than normal workers because they are meant to be provided with housing and ancillary housing-related and social benefits. However, these social benefits are expected to be on top of the minimum wage rather than deducted from it.  This means that some workers are being hit twice, i.e. by a lower minimum wage then having benefits-in-kind deducted, meaning very little cash is actually earned.
  • Many of the workers are regarded as itinerant, casual or whatever you wish to call them, so perhaps they do not have the benefit of trade union representation. Perhaps worryingly pickers are so poor that they cannot pay the unions anything, so fall even outside their interests.  It really would be worrying if workers could be regarded so poor that they were not getting union representation on a pro bono basis.  Unions are important to act as a bulwark against potentially stronger interests of the tea owners.
  • There is no living wage calculated for tea workers. While I accept that Britain is only just moving to a living wage in 2016, why has neither Fairtrade nor the Ethical Tea Partnership come up with a figure for a living wage?  This would at least underpin any criticism of pay in the sector.  Even saying that all pluckers must be paid the minimum wage in cash without deductions and all benefits to be on top would be a big protection.  Much of the issue seems to lie with how the benefits are valued – so a house is worth so many rupees, but who values it? and what value does it have without a working toilet, no potable water and a leaking roof – little or none?
  • Perhaps we are all guilty of normalising the status quo. Quaint, picturesque pictures of pluckers in local dress are good photos (as above), but like farmers in Africa or Eastern Europe these pretty images hide the poverty and hardship of actually toiling on the land.  Perhaps we feel this is how it is and feel powerless to change the system.  Perhaps we feel disconnected from the pluckers in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, yet we are connected directly to them through what we pay for the tea on retailers’ shelves.  Should we just accept we pay too little for our cuppa?

Overall, I know this is a very complex area, with many nuances, but we should all feel more responsible for how we spend our money and the impacts our purchases can have on those who make the products in China, India and the UK.  We cannot always shrug our shoulders and say it is someone else’s problem.

What we will do in the short term is make sure we ask the right questions of our suppliers, which I admit we have naively not been doing.

So it will not just be questions about the environment, but also about pay, working conditions and union representation, because even if Steenbergs is a relatively powerless micro-business we can at least make do better in making sure our tea comes from sources that seem to be addressing wages and treating their people humanely, seriously and responsibly.

Top 5 teas chosen by Sophie

Friday, September 18th, 2015

 

 

We drink a  lot of loose leaf tea here at Steenbergs. All of us tend to change around our favourites depending on the weather or our moods.

Please enable images to view

Currently I’m favouring tea without milk and my current favourite picks are:

Morning Brew – this caffeine free herbal infusion is the way Sophie starts each morning, with its blend of redbush, oatstraw, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and orange peel. (This brew has just become organic at Steenbergs – finally managed to track down some organic oatstraw)

Rose and Bergamot – this is Sophie’s current favourite of all of the Earl Grey style teas that Steenbergs blend. Great for all day drinking It’s a floral mix and adds cardamom in a Persian style twist to this tea.

Organic Green tea with lemon verbena and ginger – this is a very cleansing tea with the great flavours of lemon verbena and ginger, perfect for all day drinking – although Sophie moves to it particularly in the afternoon.

Organic Happy Hippy Tea – One of the beautiful teas – a blend of organic chamomile, organic double mint and organic rose petals. Completely caffeine free, a very mellow tea, one that Sophie drinks in the evening.

Organic Fairtrade English Breakfast – this is our standard cuppa, to be drunk black, with milk, with or without sugar, it has malty overtones and is a very refreshing brew.

For other ideas on favourite teas at Steenbergs look at our Time for Tea section on the blog, where we talk to a whole range of people about their tea preferences. We’ve also got feedback from the Steenbergs tea taster panel. Let us know your favourites.

SPICE TASTER PANEL – Nasi Goreng & organic Lemon Extract

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Our spice tasters were in for a treat this time and a real test of their ingenuity, with not only the Asian spice blend Nasi Goreng but also our natural organic Lemon Extract which can be used for both sweet & savoury cooking.

NASI GORENG

Steenbergs Nasi Goreng spice mix is Steenbergs’ take on the classic South East Asian blend.

nasi-goreng-spice-mix

Literally meaning ‘fried rice’, you can add any ingredients you like to a nasi goreng, making it a sort of Asian paella but with a spicy kick.  Rating the intensity of the blend between 2 and 5 with an average of 3.7 out of 5, our tasters found it a ‘very good’, ‘spicy’, ‘hot’, ‘strong’, ‘chunky’ mix.  The Steenbergs blend does contain crushed red hot chilli peppers & chilli powder but gets its great flavour from the combination with salt, cane sugar, garlic powder, galangal, ginger powder and the new addition of amchur (mango powder).

Take a look at our word cloud for further descriptions.

Nasi Goreng – Flavour Descriptions

nasi goreng flavour worditout

Traditionally available in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, nasi goreng can be eaten at any time of day or night but is often eaten for breakfast.  75% of our panel however would eat it in the evening, although 7.5% were keen on breakfast and 7.5% anytime!

Nearly three-quarters of our tasters regularly eat Asian food, with 56% having previously used Asian spice blends, including garam masala and Thai curry pastes. Encouragingly, 81% of them would use our Nasi Goreng spice mix again, with 78% rating it Excellent or Good.

Perfect in rice dishes and a great way to use up leftover rice, our panel had some other brilliant ideas for our spice blend, including: mixed with sunflower oil and used as a rub for chicken or corn-on-the cob; on potato wedges; to give a kick to salad, in the cooking of Scotch Eggs and even on cheese on toast.  One of our panel was particularly ingenious, using both the spice mix and the lemon extract together to make a tasty chicken marinade.

Good food is often about the company you keep and how it makes you feel.  Nearly all of you mentioned friends and family as the people with whom you’d share your meal and it was great to see how ‘happy’, ‘satisfied’ and ‘warm’ this blend made you feel.

Nasi Goreng – How does it make you feel?

nasi goreng how do you feel worditout

LEMON EXTRACT

Steenbergs organic Lemon Extract is a fabulously versatile product made from organic sunflower oil and organic lemon oil.  Often used in baking, it is also fabulous in salad dressings, stir fries and with chicken and Mediterranean herbs.

organic-lemon-extract-100ml

63% of our panel opted for sweet recipes, although 15% tried both sweet and savoury ideas.  As expected our taste testers came up with new and inventive ways of using it too, including on the sweet side: raw lemon truffles; rice pudding with stewed apples; milkshake; fudge; rhubarb, raspberry & lemonade cordial; mixing with double cream and the deliciously sounding lemon & nutmeg shortbread.  On the savoury side there was lemon rice; marinades; aubergine curry; linguine; on tuna steak; smoked mackerel pate; fishcakes and lemon and rosemary potatoes.  It was even used to make a few cocktails!

Having has a good go at many different ways to use the lemon extract, 95% of our panel would use it again, with 88% rating it Excellent or Good.  81% would recommend it to a friend although nearly 10% would choose to keep it as their own secret ingredient!

Steenbergs lemon extract is a hugely evocative product, conjuring up images for our testers of ‘lemon groves in Italy’; ‘big bowls of fresh lemons’; ‘lemon cake’; ‘summer’ and lots of ‘sunshine’.

The flavour and texture are summarised in the word cloud below with sherbet and Opal Fruits making an appearance!

Lemon Extract – Flavour & Texture

lemon extract flavour texture

Our panel were also asked to think of just one word to sum up what they thought about our lemon extract and we’re thrilled to see that ‘fresh’ and ‘versatile’ are among the favourite comments.

lemon extract - one word worditout

We do hope you enjoy trying, tasting and experimenting with our products. We’d love to hear any ideas and tips you’ve gathered so that we can share them with you all.

Autumnal Colours In North Yorkshire

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

I have always liked autumn.  The weather is cooler than summer, or at least in theory – this year’s been a washout.

But I also like harvest time and autumnal colours.  The corn is in from most fields around us, the apples are turning a russet colour and the elderberries are a deep black, hanging heavy in the hedgerows, having given us heady elder flowers at mid summer.  Brambles all dark and healthy.

Then in the garden, there is the late yellows of rudbeckia and the purples of sea hollies.

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Apple ripening in our garden

Apple ripening in our garden

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Purple colours of sea holly

Purple colours of sea holly

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Back to school this month, so we’re back to smoothies to kick start the day.

The base tends to be the same – an almond and coconut milk, banana and chai spices mix.  To this, I add flax seeds, almond butter or tahini, then some superfood like acai  or maca powder.  For sweetener, I like maple syrup, with honey or agave as alternatives.

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Recently though, I have switched to using dates instead of those sweeteners.  I like it – the smoothie comes out tasting less obviously sweet plus it adds in some fibre.

I do accept the arguments against dates as an alternative to sugar, but I am using them here as a source of sugar so I think it’s fine.

Is it better than the other sugar alternatives – probably no.  If you want a low sugar version drop the banana and dates, then add some vanilla powder. The sugar-free version is delicious as well, but not as sweet.

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

100ml almond milk
100ml coconut milk
1 chopped banana
1 tbsp almond butter
1 tbsp flax seeds
½-1 tsp chai masala spices
1 tsp maca powder
2-3 dates, ideally Medjool

Simple combine all the ingredients into a blender.  Whizz until smooth, then enjoy.

Quick Quinoa And Halloumi Salad – Great Picnic Food

Friday, September 4th, 2015
Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds, Olives And Parsley

Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds, Olives And Parsley

Sophie recently been reminded of quinoa and a salad I made for a picnic earlier this summer.  We originally ate it together with several other salads and a whole array of other cold foods.

This quinoa salad has a lovely crunch and warm, nutty taste, which is balanced by the fresh flavours of the herbs and salad leaves.  Then there is the pleasant sourness and acidity from the olives, pomegranate seeds and salad dressing.

But perhaps the two things I like the best – firstly, it is ridiculously simple to make; and secondly it looks so very colourful from the multicoloured quinoa through to the greens of mint and parsley and the rich reds of the pomegranate seeds.

Then apparently it is very healthy – good for blood sugar levels and full of vitamins, especially vitamin B.

So taking the subtle hint, I made it again.

Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds and Halloumi Cheese

100g organic quinoa
2 tbsp black olives, pitted and chopped
3 tbsp pomegranate seeds
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
15 leaves fresh garden mint
10 – 15 salad leaves (ideally including some purples)
2 tbsp organic olive oil
1 tbsp organic lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
Pinch organic cracked black pepper

Rinse the organic quinoa thoroughly (this removes the soapiness that can sometimes happen when making quinoa).  Add 200ml water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, drain and leave to cool.

Place the quinoa in a mixing bowl or salad bowl.  Add the chopped olives, pomegranate seeds, parsley, mint and salad leaves and mix together.

Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and black pepper to form an emulsion.  Pour over the quinoa salad and toss.

Grill the halloumi cheese slices until golden brown, tear in half and mix into the salad.