Prevent a storm in your tea cup

Is there a storm in your tea cup? It’s worth finding out. Earlier this month, a BBC report went about doing just that, visiting tea plantations in India, where workers were found to be living in appalling conditions, most without working toilets or basic sanitary facilities, and paid far less than the minimum wage.

Happily in Sri Lanka, one of the world’s biggest exporters of tea, an example is being set for the rest of the global industry on how to better treat workers who commit their lives to this multi-billion dollar business.

I visited Sri Lanka’s tea plantations in the Nuwara Eliya district in 2013 and was heartened to find, for the most part, happy workers conducting their duties under what appeared to be reasonable conditions. Of course, you can’t believe everything you see at first sight.

 

 

My research brought me to similarly disturbing stories of hardship, child labour and even sexual abuse against female workers within the Sri Lankan plantations. But upon looking into the industry further, I learned that over recent years the country, with the help of NGOs and other charitable organisations, is working harder to make the life of a tea plantation worker more meaningful and pleasant, through education and improved living conditions among other things.

World Vision is one such organisation. Last year it completed the first phase of a project to improve living conditions for workers in Sri Lanka by building better homes that were fit for purpose on the tea estates where they work.

 

 

Sri Lankan tea pickers, who today are descended primarily from Indian Tamils brought into the country to work under British rule more than a century ago, traditionally live on the grounds of the tea estate at which they work in what are called “line houses”. These are essentially a long terrace of single-room abodes that sit alongside the fields where tea is picked. They are barracks, of sorts.

But as families inevitably grew, the accommodation didn’t, meaning anywhere between 6 and 15 people, sometimes more, could be living in one tiny room that is little more than 3 to 4 metres square. Worse still, in order to keep the home workers had to meet daily quotas in terms of how much tea they picked. That would determine their pay – little more than $40 a month these days – and also their living conditions.

Through its Vision Fund, World Vision undertook a project to build new homes for families, and by the end of 2014 had constructed 24 new homes complete with fully-functioning toilets, clean running water, and even creches with qualified carers for the children of the plantation to stay at while their parents go to work.

The five-year project will continue until 2019, and hopes to impact the lives of millions once completed. It also sets up savings clubs to help workers put away some of what little money they earn for a rainy day.

But of course more can be done, not just by the charities but by all of us. Sri Lanka is already making efforts to export more and more ethically produced tea to large markets around the world, such as the UK, US, Asia and beyond.

Sadly, some of the world’s biggest tea brands – Twinings and Tetley among them – continue to buy and sell tea produced under some of the worst working conditions imaginable. The advertising is equally troubling, not least for its use of celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and, more recently, US folk singer Lissie, who sang a Fleetwood Mac cover over this Twinings advertisement in 2015.

 

 

I can only hope that if these figures of influence where aware of the horrors happening where the tea they endorse is made, they might think twice about taking money to advertise it. Thankfully, there are plenty of other labels now making a stand and moving in a more humane direction.

You can see how World Vision rates various tea manufacturers here, and discover who some of those brands with more ethical standards are. From there, of course, you can also buy a better brand accordingly.

For more information on World Vision’s work in the fight against labour exploitation in the global tea industry, click here.