Forced labor in tea farming: how far removed are we?
Think about the foods and beverages in your kitchen right now. Would it be possible for you to list their origins down to the grower of each ingredient? I know I couldn’t, not even for something as simple as the tea in my cupboard. Let’s try and trace it back.
Logistically, the tea came from the local supermarket either bagged or loose leaf. The leaves arrived at a factory to be manufactured and packaged. Then someone or a machine had to tear them off the plant and send them to the factory. Those plants came from seeds of course which were planted and tended to. So that’s simple enough, right? But what these steps don’t take into account is the human effort needed throughout the process.
How is Tea Made?
The seeds need to be planted and taken care of. Mike Loeb of Leaf House Tea states in three to five years’ time farmers can start picking the leaves. Interestingly, if the plant is maintained leaves can grow for decades or sometimes longer. But the climate must be just right for them to grow. Even the same teas with different variants can need different climates. So this can be one reason for the use of forced labor.
Tea plants must be treated as “part of the extended family” to reach full potential, according to Loeb. Tea growing isn’t going to be desirable for those not dedicated to it. And like many other undesirable jobs, it is then done by those who are marginalized and in poverty. Forced labor is not allowing workers to leave or do anything other than sleep, eat, and work, often with little or no pay. Sadly many children are in forced labour.
Next, these workers pick leaves by hand to determine their maturity. Different types of tea will require different maturity levels. Leaf house does say that machinery can be used to pick tea leaves, but rather than only taking certain levels it will take all of them from the plant. This results in a lower quality tea. Small scale tea is considered just picking a few pounds, but the large scale is several tonnes.
Now, we might think it would cost more to have handpicked tea, but forced labor dissolves that issue. With the little pay workers receive, managers then impose debts onto works that leave no income and no accumulation of money. This is called debt bondage and includes costs like housing, food, or any transportation used to get works to the area. This might sound reasonable, but on many accounts, workers receive nothing more than what keeps them alive and sustained yet they are still making no money.
The third step is processing. It then takes another team of workers to process the leaves. Starting with withering them to become soft. Followed by heated with steam or fried in a large pan. Then either in one’s hands or using a tea rolling machine leaves are pressed just enough and not to a pulp.
The last steps include oxidization and drying of leaves so they can be packages and shipped. This process after farming can also be done with forced labor, so realistically we can’t track exactly who is handling our goods and how they are being treated. But as consumers, we can make a better effort to pay attention and ask questions about who was involved in the supply chain.
Children working to Make our Tea
This year is the UN year to end child labour. We need to consider this every time we drink a cup of tea. Many children are in harsh conditions picking our tea.
“In Western Uganda, studies and research have shown that about 40,000 children worked as tea pickers due to their state of poverty, and they earn just 30 US cents, which is barely enough to pay for meals. Also in Malawi, because of the low income, their parents get from tea picking, most children work on tea plantations.
In Sri Lanka, most of these child tea pickers are subject to sexual, physical, and mental abuse. Tea pickers have been underpaid for years with a minimum wage of 500 rupees. India is one of the biggest tea producers in the world. However, labor practices are often unethical. Why? Forced child labor is against the autonomy of children.
India has made already some efforts to tackle child labor.
Despite this, 56.4% of children aged 5–14 work in agriculture, and 33.1% work in industry. The main cause of child labor in India is the lack of schools and poverty. Sometimes Indian children are forced into labor to pay family debt.
Some claim that tea workers in India face problems of child labor and exploitation because they have a long history of colonialism. The rate of school dropouts among the children of tea pickers is extremely high in India as their parents earn very little to sustain the family. As there is too much work for tea pickers, they are forced to bring their children to meet the demand.
Despite the free mid-day meals provided at school, the dropout rate is still high, especially at the ages of 11-17, which is the age in which children are regarded as employable for domestic work. In India, tea pickers get a daily wage of Rs 167, and some others, Rs 145. This is equivalent to as much as 1.8 – 2 euros per day.” Read more from this article here.
What do we do?
So next time you make a cup of tea, think of those who could be at the root of our products. Try to choose Fair Trade or Freedom Hub teas. The Freedom Hub teas are Social Traders Certified and checked for risk of slavery. Shop here.
Every day The Freedom Hub supports the progression of human rights by helping those who have gone through any modern slavery and/or human trafficking in Australia. They show the care and compassion one needs after a life-altering situation. At their Hub in Waterloo or online, you can find products from tea to candles to coffee that they have ethically selected and checked for risk of modern slavery in their supply chain.
The Freedom Hub values come full circle, as all the money made goes right back into helping survivors at The Freedom Hub Survivor School.
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Written by: Written by: Nicki Bettuzzi (a FH Volunteer)