Last September, Helena Tubridy shared a BBC report about conditions in tea estates in Assam, in India, with the Barry’s Tea Twitter account.
The report showed terrible sanitation and broken, blocked-up toilets, leaking rickety homes, and unsafe chemical spraying.
“Comment?” Tubridy said on Twitter.
Barry’s Tea tweeted back: “At Barry’s Tea, we’re very concerned about the issues raised in the report and are currently investigating them.”
But she and some others who asked the same question, and followed up, didn’t hear anything more.
“I was really really interested to know a bit more,” Tubridy told me last week. “It wasn’t meant to be particularly critiquing, I’m a big Barry’s fan, I love their tea, and drink a ridiculous amount of it. I was just interested, finding out a bit more, connecting you know.”
In the lighthearted debate over which is Ireland’s favourite tea brand – Barry’s or Lyons – there seems to be little attention paid to which is more transparent about where they source their leaves from, or whether it is sourced ethically.
Although we are a tea-drinking nation, we are not as aware of the origins of our tea as we are of the origins of other commodities, such as coffee and bananas, says Peter Gaynor, the executive director of Fairtrade Ireland.
“I’m not quite sure why that is, actually,” he said.
Here and There
Neither Barry’s Tea nor Lyons was willing to share the exact names of all the tea estates that they source from.
Lyons gets some from Kenya, some from Sri Lanka, and some from Assam, said Adam Fisher, the media relations manager at Unilever, which owns Lyons.
“We source from an array of tea estates and though it isn’t possible to give you the names of all of them Lyons is mostly sourced from East Africa, including Kericho,” he said. It is fully Rainforest Alliance-certified, though – more on that later.
Barry’s Tea, which is not Rainforest Alliance-certified, didn’t provide a list either. It sources 90 percent of its tea from East Africa and 10 percent from India, said spokesperson Camille O’Flanagan. “We work with some of the most reputable tea estates in every region.”
There are some arguments as to why neither Barry’s Tea nor Lyons puts up a list of the exact tea gardens they source from. It would be a long list that might change during the year.
“We source from and support smallholder tea farmers too and these are just too numerous to list them all. Plantations must adhere to our sustainable agriculture code though,” said Fisher of Unilever.
Brands have their special blends, too. “It’s a bit like a recipe, a blended tea is something they would want to keep the make-up of their teas to themselves,” said Gaynor of Fairtrade Ireland.
Per Bogstad, senior manager for markets transformation at the Rainforest Alliance, says he thinks that’s the main reason: commercial confidentiality. “Like, one brand not giving away its ingredients profile.”
Tea companies have a taste profile so they can keep the same taste throughout the year with different batches, which would make it problematic. “That means buying from a variety of different estates throughout the year, or throughout a given time,” said Bogstad.
As he sees it, Rainforest Alliance certification is a solution to that.
“In a way it would make it easier for people to investigate conditions more easily, but at the end of the day what we are trying to do through certification and other means is just to continually improve those standards,” he said.
As Tubridy sees it, though, consumers also have a right to know – and she’s noticed how her daughter is a lot more conscious about where food and clothes come from than she was when she was younger.
Millennials are, in a way, the post-Body-Shop generation, she says. “They are really, really interested in where stuff comes from and what it’s all about. Much more than we ever were, we were shameless really.”
There’s no real argument for opacity, says Tubridy. “I think we love to know the provenance of our wines, and tea is pretty much the same, really. I do think the transparency really needs to be bumped up.”
It would help tea workers if tea drinkers here pushed for more transparency around supply chains in the tea industry, said Jayshree Satpute, a human rights lawyer with the Indian NGO Nazdeek, an alliance of lawyers, researchers, and activists who use the courts to push for greater socio-economic rights for tea workers.
“Information is always empowering,” said Satpute.
Back to Assam
Some of those who tweeted at Barry’s Tea just wanted to know whether Barry’s Tea sourced from any of the tea estates mentioned in the BBC programme.
There might be a clue to that on the wall of a Barry’s office canteen, which shows a photo of the Behora Tea Estate “one of their tea plantations in India”, according to the website of graphic design agency Copper Reed.
The Behora Tea Estate was one of those visited by the BBC team. After the programme, the Rainforest Alliance ordered improvements in living conditions there, and elsewhere.
(Barry’s Tea didn’t reply to a query about why, if they source from the Behora Tea Estate, they didn’t make a public statement after the programme, as other brands did.)
After the BBC programme aired in September 2015, the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) carried out their own investigations into practices on the tea estates in question.
“As a result, one certificate was cancelled and the implementation of a significant update to the SAN standard relating to agrochemicals, housing, sanitation, access to drinking water and formal grievance mechanisms was accelerated and implemented,” said Christina Cullen of the Rainforest Alliance.
While some might question the robustness of the audits given the BBC findings, Cullen said they are making progress. After full audits at the beginning of 2016 too, they’re satisfied that non-conformities to the standards are being addressed and that progress is being made on work plans that were submitted, she said.
“The estates in question, alongside many others in Assam, are now in compliance with our standard because a time-bound plan is in place to make considerable improvements to housing and sanitation,” she said.
Those improvements will take time, she said, but if the estates want to keep their certifications they’ll have to show that they are making progress.
The Wages Issue
At the Behora Tea Estate in Assam on a summer day earlier this year, a young woman took a wicker basket, brimming with green tea leaves, from her back and took a break from her work to share a tumbler of black tea with her fellow female workers, and to check on her five-month-old baby, asleep on a mat under the shade of a tree.
She said she was 20 years old, but looked younger – as do most women and girls who work in tea gardens in Assam, where there are high levels of anaemia and girls are often married in their teens. (We haven’t named her, to protect her livelihood.)
One of the major reasons for low haemoglobin levels in women from communities who work in the estates is poor nutrition.
The young woman with the wicker basket, who lives and works in Behora Tea Estate, says that they cannot afford nutritious food with the amount of money they earn.
“I barely earn Rs 4,000 (€55) a month. My husband earns even less, since he is not a permanent worker like me and gets work as and when there is a requirement in the tea factory,” she said.
“With odd jobs, he just about matches my earning. But with five members in the family, including his parents and younger sister, it’s difficult to make ends meet. Everything, from grains to vegetables has become so expensive,” she says.
Like others, she earns a daily wage of around Rs 126. She is also entitled to subsidised rations, free-of-cost medical care, and free-of-cost accommodation in the “labour lines” – as the colonies where workers live are called.
“Our wages have increased over the years – I don’t deny that. But the rate at which the cost of simple day-to-day things are increasing, our wages don’t allow us to live a better life. I hope things change by the time my daughter grows up,” she adds.
The point about casual workers that this woman makes – her husband is a casual worker – is an important one. Casual workers, unlike those who are permanent, are not entitled to free housing and medical care, subsidised rations, maternity benefits, bonuses or gratuities.
Some of the others who work on the estate are less clear about what might bring positive changes to their community.
A male worker who was married and lived with his wife, his three children and his mother, in their two-room house in the labour line, said that everything was okay. His wife, though, had one request.
“Running water would be such a big help,” she said, recently. “We have wells, and yes, sanitisation does take place from time to time, but running water from taps … is that too much to ask for?”
Things do seem to have started to look up over the past year in Behora. There have been more audits and more funds allocated to improving conditions.
And there is a promise to make sure that there are working, clean indoor toilets at all McLeod Russel tea gardens – including Behora – as soon as possible, so no one has to go to the bathroom in fields or behind trees outside anymore.
Abiding by the conditions required for Rainforest Alliance certification – one of which mentions dignified living conditions for workers and fair wages – is now getting a renewed focus.
But most workers have no idea what the Rainforest Alliance certification is. “All I know is that our living conditions should be further improved,” said the woman who asked for running water.
“Our drains are often blocked, especially during the monsoons, and there are mosquitoes and flies all around. It is also the responsibility of the management to mend our broken toilets,” she said.
The Wage Struggle
There’s a long-running struggle over wages on Assam’s tea estates.
The minimum wage is set through negotiations between tea-estate owners, one union, and the government. The current wage is Rs 126 per day (€1.73) , less than the national minimum wage for unskilled workers.
As Bogstad at the Rainforest Alliance tells it, “Wage negotiation and the end wage being paid is a complex process,” he said.
That’s because estates provide many of the in-kind benefits, essential services that workers require, such as housing, healthcare, or schooling, the costs of which are subtracted from wages “And building that into any calculation of wages, I think, complicates it,” Bogstad said.
Not everybody agrees, though, that these should be included in calculations.
Satpute, the human-rights lawyer with Nazdeek, argues that legislation supports their position that other services such as housing and education should not be subtracted from workers’ wages. (As Nazdeek calculates it, a living wage would be nearer to Rs 328.46 per day, which is equivalent to €4.51 per day.)
Nazdeek was one of a group of NGOs to sign a letter to brands and retailers who buy tea from estates in Assam, welcoming progress, but asking them to ask their suppliers to end litigation that blocks an increase in the minimum wage from coming into effect.
(The government of the Indian state of Assam tried to revise the minimum wage in 2015, to bring it up to Rs 177.19, which is equivalent to €2.44.)
They also asked suppliers to “review your purchasing practices to enable the payment of the updated minimum wage at the tea estates which supply you with Assam tea”.
So far there’s been “no movement on court case which has stalled the entire debate on wage[s]”, Satpute said by email. “It is a well thought through move by the industry.”
Bogstad of the Rainforest Alliance said that if a court case ruled there should be an increase, or that in-kind benefits shouldn’t be counted, they would expect farms that they certify to follow that.
“If there were legal proceedings that resulted in coming up with a judgment on that (…), then Rainforest Alliance would insist on that minimum being paid,” he said.
While the old Rainforest Alliance standards listed the minimum wage as a condition for certification, the latest version of the standards stipulates a living wage. Those come into effect next year, “But [are] not necessarily something that we expect farms to reach immediately,” said Bogstad.
Should We Pay More?
This is a tough time to try to improve wages in Assam, as tea consumption continues to move away from Indian teas to African teas, says Gaynor of Fairtrade Ireland.
“So I think the industry in Assam, and certainly more generally in India, is challenged in all kinds of ways by the prices being paid for their tea, and whether that’s the cause or a contributing factor, and yes, there are extraordinarily low wages,” said Gaynor.
Tea-plucking is labour intensive, yet we pay cents for each tea bag, he says.”We’re buying it for very little even compared to other tropical commodities like coffee.”
Should we be paying more? “The difficulty is with India that the sales are going down, and prices being paid are stagnant, the consumers prices being paid are also very low, so it’s very difficult to improve wages,” he said.
But “we should find some way of paying more where the extra money we pay goes back to wages, rather than back to profits,” he said.
Fairtrade works a bit differently, giving a social premium to a workers’ committee, which can then be used for community benefits.
It seems to be working well for the banana industry, but the small amount of business that Fairtrade does in tea, and in regions like Assam, means it can be a struggle for it to make an impact and pay a living wage, said Gaynor.
“Even with us in Fairtrade, it can be very difficult to achieve that. Unless you put value, unless we get the value from sales,” he said.
“I was disappointed. I was really really interested because Barry’s is from Cork, I’m from Cork,” said Tubridy, after she heard nothing back from her tweet to the company. “Barry’s made me sit up and think and I did branch out quite considerably since then. So it did actually have … it did actually have an effect on me.”
There should be more dialogue around it and clear values behind how a company operates, said Tubridy. “Just being much more explicit. In the sense that it is not right in any way, shape, or form that we can go in and beat down the locals and get great value and pay SFA for our tea.”
That might change soon. O’Flanagan of Barry’s Tea said they have been trying to support workers and an announcement to cement that commitment may be forthcoming.
“We know that the environment in Assam is very challenging (…). We do believe in supporting the local communities we buy our tea from, and the conditions of the workers has always been a priority of ours and will continue to be,” she said.
“After a long process, Barry’s Tea are in the final stages of joining a non-profit organisation for conservation and improving the working conditions of tea estates. We will announce this news in the coming weeks,” she said.
In Assam recently, one woman originally from Behora but now working in a tea estate in the Jorhat district of the state, said she wanted managers to champion education for workers’ children.
“Education is the key to development. (…) The tea management however never comes forth to encourage children to continue their education … maybe they are scared that if we develop, as a community, who will do the menial work in the estate?” she said.
And she pointed to a daily irony for those who work to pick the tea in the many estates across Assam’s valleys and hills.
“One of the things that always pricks me is the quality of tea that the workers get from the estate. The worst of the lot, almost the tea dust,” she said.
“Workers are the backbone of the tea industry, they toil on the estate, they toil in the factories. Don’t they at least deserve a good cup of tea?”