Our best campaign yet?

Tea workers picking tea in Assam. Credit: HELM Studio

Tea workers picking tea in Assam. Credit: HELM Studio

All the UK’s big brands have now answered the question ‘Who picked my tea?’. So what does this mean for tea workers in Assam? And what else can we do? Traidcraft Exchange’s Mary Milne reflects.

‘Who picked my tea?’ That’s a question we’ve been asking for the last year – and now we know. If the tea you drink is sold by, say, Tetley or PG Tips or Clipper, and now Typhoo, you can now go to their website (or even easier to ours) and find the list of their tea suppliers, including estates in Assam and elsewhere in the world.

I expect if you are reading this, it’s because you care about making a difference in the world. You got involved in the campaign because you care about people who work long hard hours on the tea estates of Assam, paid less than the minimum wage despite their skill and the crucial role they play in bringing us the tea we enjoy.

So I think it’s more than likely that the things you want to know now are:  Will this make a difference? And what else can we do?

These are important questions which I’ll address if you keep reading.

But just for a moment or two, I’d like to ask you to pause and celebrate our collective success.

Success doesn’t come often enough in campaigning – especially in recent years as the tide of public and political opinion has ebbed away from concerns about global poverty and trade justice.

But, this time we did it. We really did. Together we have persuaded the six biggest UK tea brands – plus two others we didn’t even target directly – amounting to around 70% of the UK market, to do what they told us just 18 months ago wasn’t possible: to publish the estates they buy from. Collectively we have shifted the market from a default of secrecy to a default of openness.

If you sent an email, or a postcard, or replied to a bland customer service response, or tweeted or shared on Facebook, or came to an event or got your church or friends involved, then this is something you helped to make happen, and I want you to take a moment to smile and say, ‘Well done, together we did it.’

Success doesn’t come easily and it’s worth celebrating.

Now back to the questions: will it make a difference? And what else can we do? OK, here goes…

Will it really make a difference?

Getting the UK brands to open up about where they publish is an important step in the right direction. It’s not going to change everything straight away but it’s a start.

Now the details of the supply chain are open for all to see, it’s in the interests of all the businesses involved to make sure that they live up to their claims and that basic minimum entitlements are delivered to workers.

And to add to that, the concern for the workers that you’ve shown will have had an impact on the UK brands, and through them to their suppliers, all of whom will have been consulted and informed about the new transparency. This respect and concern for workers by consumers, people like you and me, might also begin to help shift some of the pervasive paternalistic attitudes within the Assam tea sector.

The transparency that you have helped to bring about isn’t everything, but could just be the faultline that opens up opportunities for change in Assam.

What next?

While it’s useful and interesting to look at where our tea comes from, the information we have together persuaded the brands to uncover is going to make the biggest difference in Assam.

Traidcraft Exchange has already shared the information with some community organisations there who are working with tea workers and their families. They’re in the process of mapping the information so that they can share it more widely within the tea workers’ communities.

Ultimately it will enable local organisations and tea workers themselves to raise problems which their immediate tea estate management has not been able to address – either publicly or with the UK brands.

What else can we do?

  1. Keep buying tea from Assam – especially from those brands which have published their lists. By buying, not boycotting, we are supporting an industry that provides livelihoods for more than a million people. 

  2. Keep in touch. As public pressure is lifted, I’m concerned that some of the brands might be tempted to backtrack. So we’ll be keeping an eye on them to make sure they update their lists year to year, and don’t just quietly drop them. If they do, we promise you’ll be the first to know! If you don’t already hear from us by email, you can do so here.

And we’ve got more campaigning ideas to share with you very soon. Watch this space.

Mary Milne is Traidcraft Exchange’s Head of Campaigns & Communication

Mary Milne