Wages and conditions on tea plantations
The supposed ‘minimum’ wage for tea workers is set on a regional basis by a collective bargaining agreement between the government, certain unions and the plantation owners. It is actually not a minimum, it is what all tea workers get paid.
The rate is much lower than the minimum wage for other Indian workers. This is because much of the wage is supposed to be provided ‘in kind’ in the form of housing, healthcare and food. Plantation employers have been required to provide these things since the Plantations Labour Act of 1951.
The big problem is that these ‘in kind’ benefits are generally not actually happening. Thus, workers have to use their paltry wages to pay for these things too. The conditions are worst in Assam. The Assam labour minister has himself described the conditions on the tea estates as “almost like slavery.”
Tea workers have to pick 24 kg of tea each day, which means picking extremely fast all day. If they fail, deductions are made from their already meagre wages. Meanwhile healthcare and sanitation are minimal or non-existent and food rations are insufficient. Workers are also subject to frequent intimidation and abuse. A recent study by Sheffield University found that debt bondage is quite common, with workers having borrowed money from their employers at usurious rates of interest.
Certification doesn’t seem to be helping
Many sources have reported that certification (of all kinds – Fairtrade, Utz and Rainforest Alliance) doesn’t mean better conditions in the Indian tea estates. The Sheffield University study found “very little difference between the labour practices and living standards of ethically certified and non-certified tea plantations.”
The Fairtrade Foundation points out that the lack of difference on the Fairtrade ones may be because they generally only manage to sell a small percentage of their tea on Fairtrade terms, in some cases as little as 2%. That means that they won’t be reaping much of the financial benefits of certification – they won’t get much Fairtrade premium. A producer being Fairtrade certified only means that they have the right to sell their produce as Fairtrade if they can find a buyer, it doesn’t mean that they actually do. Read more about certification schemes in our feature.
However, local workers’ rights campaigners from Assam have claimed that the Fairtrade premium doesn’t always get spent on things that benefit workers. A joint committee of management and workers is supposed to decide how it is spent, but they say that the workers are frequently too terrified of the management to contribute meaningfully.
There has always been controversy about Fairtrade certifying large estates, due to the likelihood of problems like this arising.
Rainforest Alliance and Utz also put out a statement after the publication of the Sheffield University study, saying that the situation in Assam is particularly challenging and that standards alone could not resolve it.
Read our comparison of certification schemes in our feature.
How much is the industry struggling?
The estate owners are a mix of international companies, Indian businesses and private individuals.
How much the working conditions are due to the Indian tea industry struggling financially is hard to tell. Campaigners have pointed out that conditions are very similar across estates who sell both expensive and cheap tea, and argued that they can’t all be equally broke.
However, the estate owners claim that they are on the verge of financial collapse. Prices are very low, and climate change is making it harder to grow tea in India profitably.
Conditions on the estates have worsened since the 1990s, when India started implementing free trade reforms: opening its borders to imported tea which resulted in a collapse in domestic prices, and cutting government support to the industry.
Indian tea workers are not just lying down and taking all of this. Unrest has been growing, particularly over the last decade, with strikes and protests at tea estates, hunger strikes, and occasional outbreaks of violence.
As a result, things have started to change, albeit only incrementally. After years of stagnation, since 2015 the agreed wage has risen somewhat in Assam. However, it is still very low. Traidcraft Exchange (the campaigning part of Traidcraft) is running a campaign called ‘Who Picked my Tea?” to get the big six UK tea companies to reveal the names of all the tea estates from which they source.
It argues that this will make it much easier for campaigners to pressurise estate owners to improve conditions. The tea companies do have Supply Chain Codes of Conduct but, while nobody knows which bit of tea comes from where, nobody is in a position to call out estates who are flaunting them.
Four of the big six have now revealed them: Yorkshire, Twinings, Clipper and Tetley. (It is too soon to see any results of this yet). That leaves PG Tips and Typhoo to go.
What we can do
Given that the conditions are reported to be similar throughout, it is not easy to know what to do as a consumer. Just ceasing to buy tea from Assam would do more harm than good – the workers depend on the tea estates.
Buying Fairtrade may have some value as, if there was more premium kicking around, it is possible that at least some of it would be used in ways that would benefit workers. However, given what the campaigners from Assam say, it doesn’t seem sufficient to rely on it on its own. Utz and Rainforest Alliance don’t seem to be very meaningful in this context.
One thing that you can do is join Traidcraft’s campaign and write to the two tea companies who haven’t yet revealed which tea estates they source from.