Tuesday, 9 June 2020 | Joanna
We need to talk about tea.
This week the hashtag #solidaritea was trending on Twitter as tea brands supported each other in making it clear that people who think black lives don't matter are welcome to buy their tea elsewhere. It is fantastic that anti-racism is seen as good marketing for tea brands, but it's important that their actions match their words. Showing that black lives matter to tea companies is very easy, since the vast majority of the people who pick tea all around the world have black or brown skin.
All the biggest tea brands we drink in the UK source from tea plantations in Assam, India. The region was planted on an industrial scale from the 1830s by the British East India company who forcibly captured families from other regions of India and brought them to work on tea plantations. Many of the people who work in Assam tea today are descended from these families and are still indentured to the same plantations. They are not considered to be official citizens of Assam and are known as "Tea-Tribes" by the authorities.
By the time India gained its independence from Britain in 1947 Assam was one of the richest regions of India, but these riches were bought at the price of free or extremely cheap labour. Now one in three people in Assam live below the poverty line. Given the importance of tea to the region's economy it is not hard to deduce that many of these people are workers on tea plantations.The average wage for a tea worker in Assam is 167 rupees (£1.75) a day and can be as low as 115 rupees (£1.20). In contrast tea workers in southern Indian states like Kerala earn 350 rupees (£3.28) a day. 60% of Assam tea workers are women.
So why is Assam so much worse than other places?
In 1951 the Indian government effectively abdicated responsibility for the welfare of Assam tea workers by introducing the Indian Plantations Labour Act. This stated that the provision of housing, education and healthcare for workers is the responsibility of the plantation owner. This - like in cases of modern slavery the world over - results in lower wages as the employers make deductions from wages to pay for the facilities they provide. Technically this is illegal in India but the authorities turn a blind eye.
The text of the act runs as follows:
every employer of plantation shall be responsible to provide and maintain welfare facilities through his own resources relating to drinking water, housing, medical, education and toilet to the workers in the plantation
Plantation owners provide radically different levels of housing, maintenance for the housing that is provided, medical, sanitation and education. The fact that illiteracy is widespread tells you how good much of the education is.
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on Assam tea workers. The Indian government closed the tea estates in March and banned all exports to try to control the spread. In addition to the indentured Tea Tribe families, desperate people from other parts of India are still coming to Assam to work for tea estates on a temporary basis. Unfortunately lockdown has made it necessary for these people to "go home" to their families in other parts of India, causing mass migration on foot.
The tea industry resumed production in early May with social distancing and infection control guidance. But monitoring 783 tea estates to ensure covid prevention measures are in place is not going to be easy. Making sure pickers and packers are 2m apart and wear masks could have a negative effect on productivity and plantation owners who shirk their obligations in normal times are unlikely to be overly assiduous about providing enough water for workers to practice regular hand washing.
So what can we do about it?
Buying Fairtrade tea is the best thing you can do. Every supermarket has its own brand Fairtrade tea. You can buy Fairtrade Clipper tea from us.
Or you can choose tea from places other than Assam. Kenya, Tanzania and Sri Lanka are some examples of tea growing countries with better social and labour welfare regulations than Assam. Get used to checking where your tea came from. If you love a brand (and lots of our local customers are loyal to Yorkshire tea) you can ask them to ensure they buy from Fairtrade certified plantations.
Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips are active on Twitter and ready to listen to customers who want to hold them up to ethical standards. They have even banned racists from buying their tea. Let's make sure they remember that Black Lives Matter not just in the USA and UK but also in Assam.