Why is Traidcraft Exchange focusing on tea workers in Assam?

Assam is one of the biggest tea producing areas in the world, and is famous for the high quality and distinctive flavour of its tea which is a key ingredient of many British blends. But in recent years, it has also become infamous for the way in which workers on the tea estates are treated.

Traidcraft Exchange heard direct from organisations supporting workers in Assam about the appalling conditions, low wages and lack of alternatives for workers on tea estates.

The maternal mortality rate in Assam is the worst in India. In tea estate areas it reaches 404 deaths per 100,000 live births – comparable to levels in Sub-Saharan Africa and far higher than the Indian average of 167 deaths per 100,00 live births.

Assam also has the highest rate of child trafficking in India – more than a third of India’s total child trafficking cases originate in the state.

Wages on Assam tea estates are much lower than on tea estates in south Indian states like Karnataka or Kerala – even though Assam tea commands a higher price than other Indian teas. Services provided by the tea estate owners – like housing, sanitation, schools and clinics – are of very poor quality. People told us about leaky roofs, broken or non-existent latrines and clinics with no medicines.

The people who pick tea in Assam work long hours for very little money. Yet they have few alternatives. It adds up to a bleak picture.

The UK brands which buy from Assam are well aware of the situation, but are not doing enough to challenge it.

 

What are some of the causes of this situation?

As you can imagine, this complex situation has multiple causes.

My grandfather worked. Then my father. After dad, my mother worked. After her I am working.
— Woman tea estate worker

 Assam was the first place in the world where commercial plantations were set up specifically to grow tea for the British market. Colonial tea ‘planters’ needed workers to run these estates. In the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial government began to bring people from other parts of India – particularly poor Adivasi or ‘tribal’ people from central India – to work the gardens as indentured labourers. In practice this was not dissimilar from slavery.

“Government agents procure their men by a regular system of recruiting established throughout the thickly-populated districts (some people unkindly say that the business bears an uncommonly near resemblance to kidnapping) so that the supply hardly ever runs short in a case of emergency. The great drawback to this method of furnishing a garden with labour is the expense…” A Tea Planter’s Life in Assam by George M Barker, published Calcutta, 1884

Today, the vast majority of workers on tea estates are descended from people brought from other parts of India. They speak their own language and have a distinctive cultural identity. Many have lived and worked on a particular estate all their lives. Opportunities to get jobs elsewhere are limited – although many dream of a better life for their children.

Father, mother, and us, we used to just give a thumbprint, but now if kids are uneducated, they won’t get jobs anywhere
— Woman tea estate worker

 Wages on the tea estates are set on an Assam state-wide basis through a formal process every three years, which usually includes tea estate owners and a nominated trade union. Workers are paid an agreed cash wage, alongside ‘in-kind’ benefits which they are obliged by Indian law to provide. These include services such as housing, sanitation, health facilities and primary schools. Subsidised food rations are also provided.

The cash wage – currently 137 rupees per day (about £1.50) – is significantly below the Indian national minimum wage of 300 rupees per day for unskilled agricultural workers, despite the fact that tea picking is highly skilled work which contributes to the final taste and quality of the tea.

Clearly, it is the tea estate owners who have the ability to pay higher wages. The estate owners are a mix of international companies, Indian businesses and private individuals. They operate closely together and have been described as having a ‘club mentality’.

Tea estate owners justify the low cash wage by pointing to the additional services they are obliged to provide under India’s Plantations Labour Act. But Traidcraft Exchange found that many of these services are not delivered at all, or delivered poorly. Women have to use their meagre cash wages to pay for things like education or healthcare, which are supposed to be provided by the estate owners. Although there are several trade unions which claim to represent the tea workers, the largest has close links with estate owners. Many believe it has not done enough to represent workers’ needs. Unions have been involved in the sector-wide wage setting process but have not challenged the estate owners and have even in the past joined with estate owners in legal action to block a wage increase!

However complexity should not be an excuse for inaction, which is why Traidcraft Exchange is calling on the UK brands to play their part and be much more active in challenging the current situation.

 

Which brands is Traidcraft Exchange targeting and why?

Traidcraft Exchange is focusing on the six biggest brands by UK retail market share. There are other players in the UK tea market, many of whom buy from Assam, but for the moment we are targeting the ‘Big 6’.

Some of the parent companies of UK brands, including Unilever, Twinings and Tata Tea, also have a significant presence on the global tea market.

What can UK brands do?

The UK brands which buy from Assam are well aware of what is happening on the tea estates. Some are funding programmes to provide girls’ education, clean water and other improvements. These are welcome initiatives, but they do not tackle the root causes of the problems.

All the brands have some kind of ‘code of conduct’ or certification scheme for their suppliers which sets out minimum standards and should help to improve things. But the brands haven’t made public which estates they buy from so the workers, and the local organisations who support them may not be aware that they are covered or what overseas buyers expect.

But there is something they could do – right now – which would help unlock further change in the future. They could tell us: who picked my tea?

Traidcraft Exchange is calling on the 'Big 6' UK tea brands to publish details of which Assam estates they buy from. They should make this list available in a single place on their website and update it at least once a year.

 

How will it help to publish details of where brands buy from?

Publishing the details of which estates brands buy from might not sound dramatic, but it has the potential to be a game changer for workers in Assam. There are four main reasons for UK tea brands to do so:

1. It would empower workers and local organisations

The experts on what pay and living conditions are really like on tea estates are the men and women who work there. At the moment these workers don’t know where the tea they grow is sold, and so don’t know if their estate is covered by an international brand’s code of conduct. Transparency would make it much easier for the workers – and the local organisations which support them – to hold the brands to account if a code of conduct was breached.

2. Treating consumers with respect

Many British tea drinkers are increasingly concerned about where their tea comes from. Publishing the details of tea estates that supply a UK tea brand shows the consumer that there is nothing to hide.

3. Rewarding and recognising improving practice

Publication would help highlight tea estates which are going the extra mile to improve the way they treat their workers.

4. Falling into line with global trends

Being transparent about suppliers is increasingly seen as best practice. Fashion retailer Primark – a sister company to Twinings in the Associated British Foods group – has already published the names and addresses of over 1000 clothing factories in 31 countries. And Unilever – the owner of the PG Tips tea brand – has already published the names and locations of more than 1,400 palm oil mills it buys from. Why not tea?

 

If the conditions on tea estates are so bad, shouldn’t we just stop buying Assam tea?

The workers on tea estates rely on continued sales for their livelihoods, and international consumers – who are more likely to raise concerns about working conditions – have a valuable role to play. That’s why we are not calling for a boycott of Assam tea. However we are encouraging consumers to ask the brands: ‘Who picked my tea?’

 

But the tea I buy is Fairtrade?

There are some Fairtrade teas on the market which include tea from Assam, and these are supplied by a small number of the estates in Assam that are certified Fairtrade. Buying these teas is a great way of showing the brands that you care about the working conditions on estates. But Fairtrade certification can’t do everything, especially in a situation that is so complex, and brands shouldn’t be using this as a substitute for taking responsibility for the conditions in their own supply chain. All the brands need to publish the list of estates in Assam which they buy from.

 

Got another question? If your question isn’t answered here, drop an email to campaign@traidcraft.org and we’ll do our best to help!