This time last year was very exciting in the Darjeeling region of India, the home of rolling tea hills and the fierce and friendly Gorkha culture. Locals had a sense of empowerment after a labor strike that took the tea industry by hostage. There was no choice but for the tea industry to listen to the people and understand the struggle the local labor has been experiencing as growers and makers of the Champagne of Teas. All eyes on the demand for independence and Gorkhaland, but has anything changed? Gorkhaland was not formed and workers continue to deal with the daily struggles of low profit margin production as they go back to work. There is one big difference though that is not spoken about in media or among industry professionals, the strike further solidified the supply chain of lower value Nepalese teas to be sold as Darjeeling tea.
I have been working with a community of small tea growers led by a Gorkha family in Darjeeling that is focusing on producing high-quality tea to sell to the foreign market called Yanki Tea Factory. Their teas have been valued greatly in the international market, but there is only so much of these highly specialty teas that can be made: The majority of their production is bulk orthodox teas. Following the second flush season, leading up the festival season of Dusshera and Diwali, the family was becoming very worried that they wouldn’t be able to distribute bonuses to the small growers working within their network. The reason is because they were sitting on large stocks of tea from the first and second harvests of 2018 because tea buyers refused to pay a fair price for the tea. The buyers’ argument is that they are able to get similar quality teas at a much lower price from Nepal. These relationships and supply chain had been formed during the time of non-supply during the 2017 strike.
Independent tea makers are not the only ones affected by this development: Even large and famous tea estates are sitting on larger stocks this year. Unsold tea means no cash which means no bonuses. Throughout Darjeeling this year, only 8% was given to the workers whereas a 19.20% bonus was given to the workers in previous years. The festival season is an important time for these communities, and the bonuses have always been the way they are able to enjoy it. This year’s festival season will always have the love and energy of the Gorkha; just more financial struggle.
For the Yanki Tea Factory community, this festival season will be an encouraging one as their direct trade buyers around the world have been introduced to their bulk teas at a fair price and have provided enough revenue for them to provide proper bonuses to their network. There is still much more work to be done in improving quality, efficiency, and marketing for these teas around the world; but it is progress.
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