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
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.