• Tea Producers Urged to Share Insights on Human Rights

    THIRST has completed its initial Human Rights Impact Assessment in the global tea sector and is now seeking to understand the root causes. Founder and CEO Sabita Banerji says that, “the voices of producers are, in fact, quite rarely heard. They are often blamed for circumstances beyond their control. We just want to understand how it all works, where the levers for change may be, how the current situation might be driving some of the undeniable problems in the tea sector, and what could be done to address those problems.”

    Producers: Tell your side of the story. Fill out this form to receive a link to the Global Tea Producers Survey before January 31, 2023.

    Listen to the Interview

    Sabita Banerji on THIRST’s Human Rights Impact Assessment
    Since the inception of the tea industry criticism for low pay and poor living and working conditions for tea workers has been directed primarily at owners.  Historically, there were undeniably bad practices – many tea producers have since improved conditions on their estates and enjoy good relations with their workforce, complying with local laws and regulations.

    Tea Producers Get An Opportunity to Tell their Side of the Story

    Sabita Banerji was born and raised on tea plantations in Kerala and Assam. She has spent nearly 20 years working in ethical trade and international development, holding strategic posts at Oxfam and the Ethical Trading Initiative. Sabita was previously a member of the Board of Directors of Just Change, UK – a voluntary community tea trading initiative. 

    She co-founded THIRST, The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea. THIRST launched its Human Rights Impact Assessment of the global tea sector last year. Planned as a three-year study, Phase 1 of the literature review has ended, and Phase 2 is set to begin.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: I am eager to hear how the study has progressed so far. First, do you want to debunk some preconceptions about this survey, especially as you have just launched the producer’s survey? Because human rights is a touchy subject and you have often emphasized that THIRST wants to work collaboratively with producers.

    Sabita Banerji: You’re right, human rights are a touchy subject. But perhaps if we just think about tea workers and farmers as people like ourselves, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, people who just want to live a decent life, who want to have a house that is safe and waterproof in the monsoon and who can afford to educate their children to a decent standard, and who can maybe have some savings so that if a member of the family falls sick they can get medical attention for them. If we think of it that way, then there’s nothing touchy about that. These are things we all want for ourselves; we all want for anybody that we work with. And I’m sure everybody in the tea value chain wants that for tea workers and farmers if possible.

    Sabita Banerji

    However, we are working in a system established 200 years ago. And it was established with a certain structure, most of which persists today, and it was established at a time when there were very different moral standards regarding how workers should be treated. And so, we need to look at that, too. We live in an age of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There will soon be legislation from the European Union on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. There are growing demands from customers, investors, and potential employers for companies to demonstrate that everybody working in their supply chain has a life that meets those decent standards. And so, I think that’s the way to look at this issue and not worry too much about the phrase “human rights.”

    The two preconceptions I’d like to debunk with this phase of the Human Rights Impact Assessment are the preconception that civil society is somehow out to attack the tea industry and wants to destroy it. The opposite is true. NGOs (non-government organization) and civil society organizations, as much as the tea industry itself, wants the industry to survive. We want it to thrive. We want everybody within a thriving industry to be treated fairly and have a decent life. So that’s the first preconception I want to debunk.

    The second one is that tea producers are solely responsible for the conditions in which tea workers and farmers live. They are part of a wider system. In fact, most of the profit of the margin from the sale of tea is concentrated at the packing and retail end of the value chain. So, we shouldn’t be looking solely at producers to try to solve these problems. We should be looking at the whole value chain and trying to discover what everybody within the value chain can do to make life better for tea workers and farmers.

    If we were to use the language of human rights, it’s their right to have a decent life. But it’s also beneficial to the industry. There is a business imperative for ensuring that workers are not so unhappy that they are desperate for their children to get out of tea production. And so, just in terms of retention, productivity, and reputation of the tea industry as whole or individual companies, it is important for tea workers to say we have a decent life and for tea farmers to have a decent income.

    Aravinda: Was there anything that came up from the literature review that you were surprised by? Also, where were the gaps in the available literature on the tea sector? 

    Sabita: The two biggest areas where we found gaps in the information were, first, information from East and Southeast Asia. There is much literature out, you know, and a disproportionate amount of literature about Assam and less so, but still quite a lot from Kenya and Malawi. But very little in other areas. And even in other East African countries like Tanzania, many of the resources we found were quite dated. But from countries from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., which are very big, major tea-growing countries, there needs to be more literature on what life is like for workers, tea workers, and farmers there. So that’s a gap that we hope will be filled. I have to say that since we were looking at available English resources, there are likely other resources out there, although we have tried to trace those and have not found any more information as far as we know. If anyone reading this knows of resources, reports, and documentation of situations for tea workers and farmers in those areas, I’d be very pleased to hear from them.

    The second area where we found that there needed to be more information was about smallholder tea farmers. Because as you know, there is a huge surge in small tea farmers establishing themselves. And in fact, more than 60% of tea globally is now grown by small-scale tea farmers. I just read the news today that APJ (Apeejay Tea Group, the third largest tea company in India) is pulling out of the tea sector in India. Recently, Warren Teas also pulled out of its tea estates in Assam. It looks like the plantation sector is weakening, and the small tea growers’ sector is growing. And therefore, it’s important that we start to document and research, you know, what is happening to the workers and the farmers and their families? Because if there were problems in estates, and I think this is something that estate managers and owners have been telling us for years that yes, they may not have the ideal perfect conditions, but workers have some protection workers on tea estates. In contrast, small-scale farmers are dispersed across huge areas, there is no organization between them, it’s very hard to monitor. It would be very hard for retailers and brands to monitor what is happening within those farms, whether the human rights of everybody within those farms are being met. And so, this is an area where we need to see more documentation of those issues.

    Aravinda: Where were the gaps in the available literature on the tea sector? 

    Sabita: The two biggest areas where we found gaps in the information were, first, information from East and Southeast Asia. There is much literature out, you know, and a disproportionate amount of literature about Assam and less so, but still quite a lot from Kenya and Malawi. But very little in other areas. And even in other East African countries like Tanzania, many of the resources we found were quite dated. But from countries from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., which are very big, major tea-growing countries, there needs to be more literature on what life is like for workers, tea workers, and farmers there. So that’s a gap that we hope will be filled. I have to say that, you know, we were looking at available English resources. So it may be that there are other resources out there, although we have tried to trace those and have not found any more information as far as we know. So, if anyone listening to this knows of resources, reports, and documentation of situations for tea workers and farmers in those areas, I’d be very pleased to hear from them.

    The second area where we found that there needed to be more information was about smallholder tea farmers. Because as you know, I’ve been that there is a huge surge in small tea farmers. And in fact, more than 50% of tea globally is now grown by small-scale tea farmers. And I just read the news today that APJ is pulling out of the tea sector in India. Recently, Warren Teas also pulled out of their tea estates in Assam, and the plantation sector is weakening. And the small tea growers’ sector is growing. And therefore, it’s important that we start to document and research, you know, what is happening to the workers and the farmers and their families? Because if there were problems in estates, and I think this is something that estate managers and owners have been telling us for years that yes, they may not have the ideal perfect conditions, but they have some protection workers on tea estates. And but small-scale farmers, they are, you know, dispersed across huge areas, there is no organization between them, it’s very hard to monitor, it would be very hard for retailers and brands to monitor what is happening within those farms, whether the human rights of everybody within those farms are being met. And so, this is an area where we need to see more documentation of those issues.

    Aravinda: The second phase of survey and interviews is a key phrase, isn’t it, of surveys with producers and interviews with industry stakeholders, particularly workers. What is the expectation of this phase? 

    Sabita: The second phase is really key. This is the analysis phase. The first phase was assessment, where we documented both how the industry works, what standards are in place, the human rights in principle and in practice. The second phase is analysis, which is the phase we’re in now. The third phase will be action planning, where we bring together international multi stakeholder players to discuss what should be done. And the fourth phase will be accountability, where we try to support the tea industry to monitor those action plans and how effective they are, whether they need adjustment, etc.

    So, this is a key phase, this analysis phase. This phase will consist of three things, a producer’s survey, key informant interviews with a wide range of people throughout the tea sector and technical experts in things like international trade, gender, the tea industry as a whole. And the third element will be looking at alternative approaches, you know, what have different players been trying around the world to improve working conditions for workers or how tea is traded, and so starting to put out some potential solutions. But the most important one of those three, I think, is this producer survey. Because producers’ voices are in fact quite rarely heard. People worry that the voice of workers is not heard. And that is a legitimate worry. But there have been this huge number of reports, many NGOs and trade unions and academics, interviewing workers, finding out their position and their point of view and their lived experience. And obviously, brands and retailers are usually happy to speak out. But for producers, it’s harder because firstly, they are often directly blamed for the condition of workers on their estates. And secondly, they are just part of a wider value chain or wider supply chain. They have little control over the prices that are paid for the tea that their workers produce. And they are also under pressure with increasing costs and increasing climate impacts. Which makes it really difficult to run these estates, as perhaps we’ve seen from some of these companies pulling out and a lot of estates closing, leaving workers in a really vulnerable position. So we need to hear the voice of tea producers. We need tea producers to be able to say what pressures they’re under and what would help them to try and address some of these problems. And they need to be able to do this in confidence, anonymously so that there is no commercial risk to them in speaking out in case some of their answers may seem critical of their customers.

    And you know, the principle that THIRST works on is that we’re not about blaming any player within the within the tea value chain. We’re not blaming producers for how they treat their workers. We’re not blaming brands and retailers for how they do their purchasing practices. But we just want to understand, we want to understand how it all works, where the levers for change may be, how the current situation might be driving some of the problems that are undeniably there in the tea sector, and what could be done by those players to address those problems.

    Aravinda: And, as you said, there’s little available literature on small tea growers. Given the changing models, how will you approach Phase 2 given the differences in how large estates, small tea growers, bought-leaf factories, etc., operate?

    Sabita: Yes, you’re right. The tea sector is very complex, at that production level, at every level, but the focus of this survey, we had to be very clear about whom we were targeting. And the issues for small-scale farmers, bought-leaf factories, and tea estates are very different, so it wouldn’t work to try to cover them all in one survey. So, we are targeting this survey at large tea estates; we intend to do surveys on factory workers and small-scale tea producers at some time int he future. But currently, we’re using the Indian government’s definition of a larger estate of five hectares or more and employing over 15 people to emphasize that this survey is not exclusively for India; it’s for any country where tea is being produced. So, all tea producers who meet those criteria are invited and encouraged to participate in the survey.

    Aravinda: What are the challenges you foresee?

    Sabita: The main challenge is getting producers to participate in the survey. Because over the years and centuries, much trust has been lost between the different players within the tea sector. And it will take time and careful work to tear down those barriers or dissolve them between the players. So, I want to reassure the producer that this survey will be done anonymously. And you can confidently answer the questions so that the responses will not be revealed to anybody. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to aggregate the results. So, a certain percentage of respondents confirmed that in the last year, this is how much of their made tea was sold below the cost of production. We’re not naming any producers. We’re not naming any buyers, brands, or retailers. We’re just going to focus on the generic responses that tea producers give us. But we also have space within the survey for producers to give us more detail if they want to. Again, those responses will be treated completely anonymously. And you know, if there’s anything within it that would identify the state or all their customers, we will not publish that. But it will be extremely valuable to have that information to feed that knowledge and understanding into the next phase where we’re developing. We’re working with the industry to develop an action plan. We invite producers themselves to be part of those multi-stakeholder discussions to be part of the discussion about what role they can play in improving the life and work of the workers, but also what they need from the other players within the value chain to enable them to do that.

    Aravinda: How different will THIRST’s on-the-ground research be from, say, audits by certification bodies? 

    Sabita: The Global Tea Producers Survey is a very, very different thing from an audit or certification standard. Audits and certification checks are just checking up on the producer. Whereas this is asking the producer to say what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, and what their situation is. So the data from this survey will complement what you get from audits. But it is a very different kind of study.

    Aravinda: Is there anything you’d like to put out there to producers on why they should participate in the survey, what is expected of them, and how the information will be used? 

    Sabita: All tea producers, managers, and owners of tea estates in whatever country they’re in should seriously consider taking part in this survey. This is not just a brief few questions; it will require an hour of your time and allow you to put your side of the story forward. THIRST is not about blaming any party for the situation of tea workers and farmers. But the voice of producers has yet to be heard. This is your opportunity. Often producers say that what is reported about them needs to be more accurate. This is your opportunity to give accurate information about managing a tea estate, paying workers a decent wage, and providing decent benefits. So please, please do take up this opportunity. Don’t be afraid, don’t be defensive. Because this is not an attack, this is offering you the opportunity to speak out.

    If you agree to take part you’ll be emailed a link. The survey is on Survey Monkey, which we’ve researched and have found to be the most secure. This spring we will aggregate the data we receive and we’ll put that together in a report to try to reflect the challenges that producers around the world are facing and what the situation is really like for them. And then, that report will be combined with our findings from the key informant interviews, and we hope that some of you will agree to take part in those interviews. And it will also be combined with the results of the alternative approaches that we hope to document. So when combined with the Phase One report, we looked at the problem. We look at how the tea industry works, and we will look at human rights in principle and human rights in practice. In Phase Two, we will have looked at the producers’ perspective. The key informant interviews will give insights into what could be driving some of these problems. And then also these alternative approaches, which will show us some of the potential solutions that there might be. And we’ll bring all that together for Phase Three when we invite tea stakeholders from around the world to come together to discuss what they, working together or individually or in groups, could do to address these problems. And thereby not only making lives better for tea workers and farmers worldwide but also strengthening the tea supply chain and improving the tea industry’s reputation.

    See What is THIRST, the International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea

    If you manage or own a tea estate anywhere in the world, THIRST would like to offer you the opportunity to give your side of the story by taking part in the confidential Global Tea Producers Survey.

    — Sabita Banerji

    We understand that issues like price discovery and purchasing practices can be commercially sensitive, and the survey provides for anonymity and confidentiality. We also believe the survey will help tea buyers to better understand the pressures that suppliers are under. Pressures which can impact on workers, creating potential reputational risk to both their brands, and to the industry as a whole. Results will be aggregated and neither producers nor buyers will be publicly named. 

    Consumers, investors and employees around the world are increasingly demanding higher social and environmental standards for those who produce goods and services. To meet that demand in the tea sector, everyone involved needs to explore how they might be unintentionally suppressing workers’ pay and conditions, including tea producers, governments, trade unions, tea buyers, brokers, packers, traders, brands, retailers and tea consumers.

    By working together, THIRST believes that a new kind of tea industry is possible – a tea industry fit for the 21st century, a kinder, fairer industry in which everyone thrives. But we can only get there if we listen to all voices, and understand all perspectives – including those of tea producers.

    Anyone who’d like to participate in the survey should go to THIRST’s website: www.THIRST.international Scroll down to see a link to the producer survey to register. And we very much look forward to hearing what producers worldwide would like to share about the realities they are facing.

    To register and complete the survey, please fill out this form before 31st January 2023.

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  • Women’s rights in tea with Sabita Banerji and Krishanti Dharmaraj

    In recognition of International Women’s Day, Tea Biz spoke with Sabita Banerji and Krishanti Dharmaraj from THIRST, The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea. Sabita was born and raised in tea gardens in Assam and Munnar. She is an economic justice advisor and the founder and CEO of THIRST. Krishanti Dharmaraj is a THIRST trustee and Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in New York and co-founder of WILD for Human Rights (Women’s Institute for Leadership Development). 

    A conversation with THIRST’s Sabita Banerji and Krishanti Dharmaraj
    Tea workers march in Munnar, South India, during Pembilai Orumai (Unity of Women) strike in 2015. Photo by Sabita Banerji

    Where do we stand with respect to workers rights, and women’s rights, in particular, in tea in countries like India?

    Sabita Banerji: There’s a lot of talk about labor rights on tea plantations all over the world, but very much so in India as well. The majority of workers particularly at the lowest paid level, the tea pluckers, are women. The industry talks about women having delicate fingers and being able to pluck the two leaves in the bud. But when I’ve spoken to women workers, in the Dooars, for example, and asked them, why do you think there are more women employed at this level, they said, because we are easier to boss. So, you know, they are aware of their situation. I think the vast numbers of women working in tea plantations are kind of stuck at the level of tea pluckers. They don’t have the kind of education or the empowerment to be able to stand up for their rights as they should be. And so, it’s important to empower them because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s important because it’s such a major element of the tea industry.

    Krishanti Dharmaraj: I want to say it is the right thing to do as well as it’s a smart thing to do. It’s important to recognise that there’s a structural nature to discrimination against women that is not limited to the tea plantation. We see that at every level, but when you take gender and intersect that with class, with caste, and with ethnicity, then at that point, the discrimination doubles. 

    So when you look at the women who are in tea plantation, and I can speak for Sri Lanka, this was the Tamil community that went, that the British took from India to Sri Lanka. They are at the lowest level. It was very recently that they were able to vote in Sri Lanka. So in that context, that systemic discrimination seeps through. And so when you see, even in spite of that systemic nature of discrimination, that women are rising up, that is extraordinary.

    And I think the tea plantations, the businesses as well as government, must pay attention to that uprising. 

    Sabita: And that is the case on virtually every tea growing area all over the world, but particularly in India where the workers tend to come from another part of that country, a poorer part, a more vulnerable part. So, very often as well as being vulnerable as women, they’re also vulnerable as migrants, as lower caste, as tribal people as Krishanti said. There is a particular vulnerability there in the tea estates.

    But where have you seen the change, where women have risen to protest this? 

    Sabita: I saw this first hand, in Munnar in 2015, and this is what inspired me to set up THIRST in the first place, The International Round Table For Sustainable Tea. 

    I had gone to visit my birth place, Munnar, and it just happened that that same day, the uprising of women workers, “Pembilai Orumai”(unity of women) had just begun. It was really an unprecedented event, that these thousands of women went on strike. And there were not only striking against management but also against the trade unions. They said that the trade unions are male dominated and that they’re not representing the women workers fairly or effectively. And so for, for many, many days, they, they stayed on strike. They did hunger strikes. They were not allowed to negotiate with the employers and the government as part of the tripartite pay negotiations because they weren’t a formal trade union.

    But the chief minister of Kerala agreed to talk to them and agreed with some of their demands. And subsequently that group of women has formed a trade union. So, you know, it probably is one of the few, genuinely representative of women workers, trade unions that there is in the tea industry.

    Another example is a cooperative called the Sanjukta Vikas co-operative in Darjeeling which runs a tea garden called Mineral Springs. This was originally a British era tea estate which was closed down when the British left and the workers were left pretty much destitute, which is still happening today.

    All over India, estates are closing and the workers have no other source of income. But this group managed with the support of a local NGO called DLR Prerna and tea promoters to actually form a cooperative, which involves several villages around the area. There has to be a balance of men and women and women have an equal say in how that co-operative is run. And they’re growing not only tea but they’ve now diversified into other crops, and they’re doing dairy … the tea itself is really good quality. It’s organic, it’s fair trade and it’s doing well.

    What’s enabling this show of strength? And what kind of support do these women need? 

    Sabita: In the case of the women from Munnar, I asked them that question because everybody around me was saying, we’ve never seen a strike like this before. And I think the local, townspeople were quite impressed with the women being strong and standing up for themselves.

    I was asking them, why do you think this has happened now? How are they now aware of their rights? They were saying that they were underpaid, their bonus was being reduced from what they were expecting it to be and they responded with just one word: WhatsApp.

    With the younger generation being on WhatsApp and I think that the uprising itself was pretty much coordinated using social media. That’s one thing, information and communication but also the strength and determination of these women themselves. What they need, in addition to their own strength and determination and information, is support from other trade unions, from local people. During that strike, they were fed by the local shopkeepers, and hotel keepers came and supported them.

    They’re now a very small trade union. They only have about 240 members, at least when I last spoke to them, that was the case. And then not really being heard by management. So I think they need more support perhaps from other trade unions, from the company itself. The tea company should be valuing this amazing resource that they have in their midst, of these women who are able to really genuinely represent their coworkers, and to tell them what they really want and need, and to respect those wishes so that they have a contented and thriving workforce.

    Krishanti: To add to that, I think it’s important to also recognise where they land, because this is not a group of women where after they finish work, they could go home and relax right there. They’re also taking care of their families, their in-laws, they are part of a community, and children. In most cases, they also face domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence is pretty high.

    When you see a woman really receiving her pay check, her face looks very different on that day than any other day. So part of it, and most of the time at least for Sri Lanka, there was a time where the husband got the money because he was able to sign for the pay check, even to put the thumbprint. 

    There’s been a shift. For the first time, to be able to feel like she is the caretaker of her family and because of her hands. She is the caretaker because it is for her hands that the entire family gets not only paid but has the ability to just stay in that steady state.

    So what we need to recognise is that if she is taking up to actually striking and pausing her work, that is not an easy decision for her. She’s got to really realise that there’s no other way, but to strike. There’s no other way out. So it is not a decision that the women in the tea estates would take lightly. They would take that decision only because there is nowhere else to go. But at that moment, when they choose to, when they have made that decision, then there’s nothing else that will stop that. Because there’s nothing else to lose. 

    When you saw the uprising where the women were striking, where were their husbands and children and other family? Were they with them? 

    Sabita Banerji

    Sabita: The women actually refused to allow their husbands to join them.

    The women were all sitting on the ground, outside the head office of the company and the men were in a side street. They were kind of messing around and they had thrown lots of tea leaves on the road and they were picking up these tea leaves and throwing them at passing cars and laughing. It was a kind of festival atmosphere for them. They were being like naughty school boys.

    And meanwhile, just around the corner, the sea of very serious women were sitting there. They had brought not only the tea industry to a stand still that day or that week, but also the tourism industry, because they were sitting on the main road through Munnar.

    They were not to be messed with, those women and they were very consciously keeping the men out of it because they were saying, we are the ones that do the work and so we are going to speak up for ourselves.

    What would you say to this display of strength? What has it taken them to arrive here?

    Krishanti: Centuries of oppression.

    To me, there are three things:

    It’s the timing and the networking. WhatsApp is one extraordinary way that people are able to organise. The first thing is that it’s not that women don’t know their rights. Innately, we know, even as children, when someone does something to us that is not right. These women know. They do not believe sometimes that they have the ability to speak up and protect themselves because the consequences would be much harsher if they speak up. So I think the rights are already in place when they have a space to articulate them.

    And then moment to express them. They will take that up. And I think now more than ever, it’s almost in the air when you look at the informal sector. And in this case, I think the tea plantation workers are considered formal because they are able to unionise. There is a movement within a movement to see that those most marginalised are rising. And I think that’s in the air. And we cannot deny that it’s sweeping across the globe. With the extraordinary amount of oppression that women are facing at this level, there is a moment that is right. And I think they’re picking up on that. 

    Assam faces the flak in the conversation around workers’ rights. Why? What can you tell us about that?

    Sabita: I’ve always wondered why there is this intense focus on Assam. I mean, this situation is very difficult there for, for workers, but it is probably worse in the Dooars, in West Bengal, in Darjeeling as well. Despite Darjeeling tea being a high value export commodity the same issues apply in any tea growing area. In terms of what’s happening in Assam, currently, there has recently been a small pay increase. Last September, many hundreds of thousands of tea workers there had gone on strike and that was a trade union organised strike demanding an increase in wages to 351 rupees a day. Which funnily enough is what the government had recommended back in 2018 and yet has never been implemented. So they’re only asking for what the government has recommended, in a system where they’re supposed to be tripartite wage negotiation.

    So, you know, you can see there’s something not quite right with this system where workers are still being paid so much below the living wage. To come back to the question that you asked about the men, and it also links to something Krishanti said about domestic violence — one of the issues is with the fact that most of the tea pluckers are women — and the industry relies very heavily on that labor — one of the side effects of this is that the men on the tea estates tend to be underemployed or unemployed. And this leads to a lot of problems like alcohol abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence. Often men will migrate away from the estates to try to earn money elsewhere. Sometimes they don’t come back or don’t send money back. This causes a lot of societal problems, the fact that there’s so much pressure on the women, not only to do all the unpaid domestic care work, but also to do all the labor as well. 

    Often organisations come along and suggest solutions like alternative income generating projects, like having a cow or having a kitchen garden or something … that too is something the woman has to do on top of everything else.

    One of the women I met in the Dooars told me that yes, we had a cow at some point, but I couldn’t look after the cow AND pluck the tea AND look after the house. So we had to sell the cow. Like we were discussing before, there needs to be a whole change of mindset about how this industry is structured and how it operates.

    K Dharmaraj

    Krishanti: One of the things we haven’t talked about is the level of harassment and violence these women face in the job as well. So they face discrimination, harassment, and violence at home, right in the community as well as at work. Then there’s structural discrimination that discriminates the entire community.

    How can we persuade producers and governments to look at it from a woman’s point of view? What is it that we need to show them? 

    Last year, the international labor organization passed a convention called ILO 190 to eliminate harassment in the world of work. So there are things that I think that’s important to recognise. One is that the convention talks about harassment and violence against men and women. And harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. It is a broader definition, That is extraordinary because that allows us to really address the systemic nature of discrimination. And it talks about the world of work. The employer is responsible for ensuring and enabling an environment for the workers to thrive. Because it’s the ILO, it speaks to government, it speaks to employers and unions. This particular treaty, if ratified and implemented, it might support the shift in this structural systems. Because it is not one system. 

    What would you say these women want? 

    Sabita: The women were demanding better pay, they were demanding all the things that are promised to them under the Plantation Labor Act, which was, you know, decent housing, healthcare, education. A lot of outsiders look into the situation and say, actually, this situation is not really sustainable. A company can’t provide all those things that a government would normally provide AND pay decent wages, especially as they’re not being paid necessarily a very fair price for the tea.

    But when you talk to workers themselves, because they’ve been in that situation for many, many generations, it’s sometimes hard for them to see what life might be like, without all of those supports. So often they say, no, we do want to keep the rations and the benefits that are provided rather than … it’s just, it’s almost like, their prison is also their safety net.

    In Sri Lanka, there have been some attempts to set up community development forums, attempts to actually give the housing and the land to the workers. So they’re not lines which are just connected to be owned by the tea company, but they are actually owned by the workers and then that developed some pride in their own.

    Krishanti: I think I wanted to just step back to say that in the context of existing systems, yes, they want the basic rights. If you pause and if you allow them to speak freely, and if you allow, if you give them the space to imagine, that imagination runs wild and that is completely out of the existing structure.

    Within the existing structure, like when you talk about Sri Lanka, yes, there have been attempts as well as successful ways in which women have inherited land, in partnership or by themselves. But most of the time it’s written to the man because of an inability to do that. Sri Lanka has one of the highest literacy rates — it’s close to 90+ percent, but in the tea estate, they barely make it, they’re unable to even sign their name. Now we have provided them the ability to sign their name when they take their pay check. But that is all they can do. 

    Sabita: In Indian states like Kerala, there are very high literacy rates and other kind of social standards, but not on the tea plantation. So, the disparity is extraordinary. 

    Krishanti: If you take it within the context, yes, they want to make sure that the housing is there.

    They want running water. They want to have toilets that have doors. They need to be able to take showers. So, when you’re looking at the basics, they are looking at economic, social, and cultural rights to be in place that India and most of these countries have already signed on to that human rights treaty. And it is only provided for some not others. Education. They want everything that any regular citizen would want. Access to education, housing, healthcare, decent work sanitation, right. To express themselves, you know, in their job. 

    Sabita: About education, everywhere I went, every tea worker I spoke to wanted to get a decent education for their children so that they wouldn’t have to work in tea plantations anymore.

    Krishanti: When you ask, is there anything else you want, the first thing they say is I want to be treated well as a human being, with respect. They know they can’t get in the system. So, they will compromise that right to dignity to have the basics for their family.

    So, it is about the treatment. It is about the inherent right to dignity that is violated on a daily basis because of the way in which structurally they are discriminated against as a community, as disposable humans, who they cannot dispose because they provide a specific service for a massive industry.

    Sabita: Krishanti talking of them being disposable. … in fact, that’s exactly what is currently happening in Kenya where there has been increasing amounts of mechanisation. For example, Finlay’s has been laying off thousands of workers and bringing in machines instead, and it’s mostly women who are now losing their jobs as a result.

    In Malawi recently, there has been an interesting development in which Camellia, a tea company that owns many local tea companies there, has agreed to a settlement for women who made claims of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence. Camellia, thanks to the work of Leigh Day lawyers have not only agreed to make a settlement, but they’ve also agreed to put in place other initiatives to actually empower women and protect them going forward. 

    When you ask, what do women need, I think some of these. And what do they want? Some of these things that the settlement includes, like gender equality, scholarships,  female leadership training programs, which hopefully will also be accompanied by the willingness to engage women at more senior levels.

    But these are all things that we’ll add to. Women, not only attaining their rights, but as Krishanti said, feeling that they are being treated with respect and with the dignity that any human being deserves. 

    Krishanti: When a woman loses her job, it’s not just her losing a job that is that entire family’s livelihood is at stake. We need to understand it is not only that the woman loses. And that’s an entire company, community’s livelihood and the quality of life that is at stake. And that in itself is an economic threat to any government, to have that many unemployed or underemployed. So I think when you ask, what do the women want, if we pay attention to what women want it is what a country wants. So you can take it from a holistic standpoint and say, if you really believe in democracy and human rights for all the people as leaders, then you need to listen to those who are in the margins. Because without them, there wouldn’t be democracy. We can talk, it will be rhetoric. And for a business, it is that a happy worker, is a more productive worker. As individuals, if we’re in a better mood, we can get a lot more done. But if we are beaten up every day, that is a very different conversation to be had.

    Paying attention to what they want and the way they want it, I think is the trick and the importance of it, not what a company, the industry or government believes they should be given. 

    Sabita: That idea of a happy contented worker being more productive was actually quantified. Care international produced a paper on the business benefits of empowering women tea workers in Sri Lanka, which actually showed that the productivity increased. But of course that shouldn’t be the reason why companies should do it, but this should be reassuring for them. 

    Also, there are so many long-term benefits. The younger generation don’t want to buy tea that’s been produced using slave labor and sexual harassment of women. They increasingly want things to be ethically produced, environmentally friendly. And if it’s not, they will know about it because of social media. And so, I can visualise a future in which tea is not grown in plantations, but it’s grown more like in Mineral Springs where it’s interspersed with other crops ,where there’s cooperatives or other business models as well, but ones in which the producers have a say in their own future and are fairly paid.

    This tea plantation model, which was set up 150 years ago — it’s still that same model —  is just not appropriate for this day and age. They’re huge monocultures with a captive workforce. It just cannot continue that way. It needs to be really shaken up and something beautiful and dignified and, healthy and thriving needs to come out of it instead. 

    Do you think mechanisation is one of those things that’s going to bring about this change?

    Sabita: There are some limitations to where mechanisation is possible. Tea is mostly grown on slopes and it is quite difficult to mechanise tea plucking in hilly areas. Also, tea that is plucked using machines is not as good quality because it can’t actually differentiate the leaves as well as a human can. It’s possible that a lot of the lower value, high volume tea will end up being harvested through mechanisation as it’s happening in lots of other sectors like tomatoes and grapes and so on. But there will always be a space for high quality tea to be plucked by hand, like the Darjeeling first flush, which is very valuable. And hopefully, those who use that recognised skill will be fairly rewarded. 

    Is it about holding the producers more accountable? 

    Sabita: I think that the problem is that the tea industry has an almost 200 year history. There are all these defence mechanisms. So the minute any criticism is made of the tea industry, they immediately go into defence mode and deny that it’s happening. They will say, you’re just victimising us or it’s politically motivated or, or that was just an isolated incident. It’s not true. Or the workers are lying to you. That’s not the case. So unfortunately, they know what the problems are. They know what civil society thinks the problems are and what the workers say the problems are.  I think what they need now is, is to understand that the, that the consumers will no longer stand for it.

    We now need to look to the future and try to work out a way of growing and selling tea that actually aligns with the sustainable development goals, be that through, at an environmental level or for decent work or ending poverty or ending inequality, all of those things. 

    Krishanti: I think we have to really recognise that what we are doing is perpetuating aspects of colonialism in these estates. That is like the first realisation and to really sustainably transition, you can’t just break it down overnight and destroy the well being and the ability for communities and individuals to live. I think this is where the collective power of the government, the industry and the workers needs to come together. Even the best estates, even when women and the workers are treated well, the model itself is not sustainable, right. It doesn’t allow humans to thrive. And I think that this sense of coming together to come up with solutions is important.

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