I was delighted to see Naomi’s post on T-Ching, as I had read the same article about female children living on tea farms being sold into slavery tea_picker_hatand was so disturbed that I felt I needed to do something.  In the article, there was mention of a report by OXFAM which I found very interesting, but I was left with many unanswered questions.  I decided to contact the authors and see if perhaps they’d be willing to answer a few questions. I was pleasantly surprised to get an affirmative response.   Below you can read my questions and the responses that I received from Rachel Wilshaw, Ethical Trade Manager of Oxfam – Great Britian.  

1. Although I realize that this is a multifaceted issue, I don’t understand why the largest tea companies, Tazo’s, Tetley, Twinings, Lipton, Bigelow, etc., don’t insist/demand that tea pickers who work on plantations they purchase tea from pay a “living wage” to their workers. (To be determined regionally of course) This would be similar to what the garment companies are doing for Bangladesh workers following the death of many factory workers making clothes. What would prevent this from happening if one could gather support for this idea?

In the tea sector, wages are generally set at the national or regional level. Oxfam’s joint research report with Ethical Tea Partnership showed that tea pluckers in the locations studied – Malawi, Assam (India) and Indonesia – are paid around the level of the legal minimum wage, however in two of the three countries this was found to be well below the level needed to meet household basic needs. The level of wages paid is not related to the economic performance or social responsibility of the individual plantation in which they work. Variations between estates were, however, found in the provision of in-kind benefits, such as food, fuel and accommodation, which make up a significant part of workers’ total benefits. (See also blogs by Oxfam here and by ETP here.)

The price tea companies pay for tea is an important issue, which needs to be addressed. This alone, however, will not change the way in which wages are set.  Low pay and poor working conditions are often exacerbated by factors that are not within the ability of a company to address. For example there is no guarantee additional money will find its way into workers’ pockets without solving other problems such as the fact that many workers don’t have much of a say in pay negotiations. Concerted action is needed across the tea industry to address the systemic problems that are locking in low wages. Key priorities to change this include: 

  1. Increased participation by workers (particularly women) in the collective bargaining process. 
  2. Governments ensuring that minimum wages enable workers to meet their basic needs. 
  3. The price paid along the supply chain – including by tea companies and retailers – is enough for tea workers to earn a living wage. 

The challenges to achieving a living wage in the tea industry are so deep rooted and complex the only way of overcoming them is for the tea industry, and its key stakeholders to work together to tackle them. This includes the tea brands, retailers, governments and certification bodies, as well as trade unions and NGOs. 

tea_pickers_field We are cautiously optimistic that positive change will happen, on the back of the Oxfam-Ethical Tea Partnership report. As with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which has brought together 80 international brands and retailers with trade unions, Bangladeshi authorities and employers in a single initiative, cross-sector collaboration is key. In the tea sector, for the first time, a critical mass of stakeholders has committed to working together to find solutions to the problem of low wages, starting in Malawi.  

 2. Why didn’t “Fair Trade” require “living wages” when implementing their practices?  Given their mission and desire to improve the conditions of workers, I don’t understand how this oversight could have occurred.  Their name implies that was a consideration and actually feels inherent in their mission.

The fact that many consumers opt to buy certified products helps improve environmental and social conditions in food and drink supply chains, including tea. Different certifications focus on different areas, for instance Rainforest Alliance focuses more on environmental issues while Fair Trade focuses more on social and economic issues. 

The Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certification organisations currently only require that workers are paid the legal minimum wage which is often far less than is needed to meet a household’s basic needs. The Fair Trade Labelling Organisation’s standards do require plantations and companies to gradually increase wages to living wage levels. However this has not occurred in the plantations we studied, due to the range of deep-rooted and complex barriers identified.

Positive impacts for workers: It is important to note that certification brings other benefits for workers, which are not covered in the Oxfam-ETP report. For example, in Malawi the Fairtrade Premium supports the largest adult-education project in the country.  A recent Oxfam study in Kenya found that workers on Fair Trade-certified flower farms had better employment contracts, health and safety provisions, and the Fair Trade Premium has funded the distribution of gas cylinders and pressure cookers which reduce the time women spend gathering firewood. 

Positive impact for smallholders: Over 80 per cent of Fair Trade certified products, including 40 per cent of certified teas, come from smallholder farms (rather than large scale plantations, such as the ones studied for the tea report).  There is independent evidence that these bring positive impacts for those smallholders. For instance, recent research in Malawi found that incomes of tea smallholders had increased three-fold.

Nevertheless more must be done to ensure workers producing ethically labelled products earn wages that take them above the poverty line. All three certification organisations are currently reviewing their standards and have made clear they are committed to strengthen the certification process for waged workers and work with others to tackle the problems locking in low wages in the tea industry. Oxfam would like all three to make explicit their commitment to progress towards payment of a living wage in the medium term and that any new requirements which are introduced are obligatory for all licensees. 

 3. What do you feel tea drinkers need to know about the plight of tea pickers around the world? and 4. What do you believe tea drinkers can do about this problem? 

We would like all tea drinkers to take an interest in their favourite tea brands and the steps the companies are taking to understand and address low wages on plantations, along with other social and environmental issues, and make clear your expectations of a living wage for workers.

 We would also like people to buy Fair Trade-certified tea and other products. Fair Trade, with its strong ethical values, premium distribution, and work with trade unions, is well placed to play a leadership role in ensuring a living wage as well as a fair deal for  smallholders. Other certification organisations can also play a vital role as long as a living wage is incorporated in their standards and auditing processes. 

We would encourage consumers to make their concerns about poverty wages known to tea companies and certification organisations alike.

 The response of Fair Trade International, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified to the findings of the Oxfam-Ethical Tea Partnership study and their commitments to address low wages can be found on page 32 of the report.

 5. Has any progress been made since this report in May?  

Based on the published report, proposed follow-up plans include 

  1. Country-specific follow-up
  2. Improving dialogue on wages at international and national level 
  3. Influencing the way wages and benefits are monitored and audited 

 A plan to address low wages in the tea industry, starting in Malawi, has been developed by Oxfam and Ethical Tea Partnership and is under consultation with stakeholders. 

A workshop is being organised to take place in October to disseminate the study findings to a wide range of organisations and discuss how wages can be enhanced sustainably and the roles needed to deliver this.
6. If each cup of tea sold in the U.S. cost an additional 5 cents, how might that impact the salaries of tea workers?

As long as that 5 cents on the price of a cup of tea is earmarked for workers or smallholders producing the tea, it would go a long way towards enabling people to earn a living wage.  A separate study by Oxfam in the cut flowers and green beans sectors of Kenya concluded that the addition of 5p (8 cents) to a £4 bouquet of flowers and 2p (3 cents) to a 200g packet of green beans would cover the additional cost of paying workers a living wage. 

 A willingness by brands, retailers and employers to ensure this reaches workers would go a long way towards addressing low wages, along with sustainable improvements to  wage setting and auditing processes.

I very much appreciate the time and effort Rachel made in responding to my questions.  I’m particularly excited about the possibilities that may be available to us – regarding question #6.  I will explore this in my next post and look forward to hearing your response to such a possibility.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if the tea drinkers in the U.S. could positively impact the lives of tea pickers around the globe?