CHICAGO, Illinois — The tea industry is rapidly growing. Tea plantations in Kenya, China, India and Sri Lanka account for the bulk of tea leaves. Despite the ever-growing demand, many laborers responsible for its success still face poor working conditions and decreased wages. Various organizations and hopeful startups strive to ensure that every cup is brewed fairly to bridge the gap.
The Bitter Reali-tea
Tea is the second most popular beverage behind water. People brew 70,000 cups of tea around the world every second. Furthermore, demand is rising by 5% annually. The global network of the modern tea industry is built on the combined efforts of nearly 50 million people. Many of these people come from impoverished areas and have a lack of access to proper education and financial stability. This need is fed by thousands of men, women and children at the very bottom of the supply chain tasked with fulfilling picking quotas and maintaining plantations.
The absence of resources allows large plantations to take advantage of workers and withhold wages. Small-scale farmers face similar problems. Because of their geographical location and education levels, they are often unable to gain accurate market information. Unlike the coffee business, no global governance systems regulate labor practices in the tea industry. This leaves laborers to fend for themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty.
A study from the University of Sheffield found that widespread labor exploitation is a global issue for the tea industry. Firms often forego paying fair wages and opt for cheaper, forced labor in the quest for higher profits. Workers in India, for example, earn a wage nearly 25% below the country’s poverty line and make less than $2 per day. They are subject to verbal and sexual abuse, violence and debt bondage.
The lack of adequate housing, sanitation and medical care is also common. In the tea plantations studied, the research found that there was nearly no difference between certified and uncertified farms in terms of working conditions. Without the luxury of financial support or education, many laborers are indebted to the plantations they work for and sustain an economy dependent on exploitation. Furthermore, farms become a hub for human trafficking where indebted workers are unable to escape. Preying on vulnerable populations is a routine practice. The fact remains that most workers in the tea industry are poverty-stricken.
One Cup at a Time
Several sustainable tea practices have been implemented to steer the tea industry in the right direction. Conscious consumers have created a demand for ethical labor practices and pushed companies to source their supply from plantations certified by outside organizations. Not only do these organizations check for traces of labor exploitation but they also help regulate an industry that has needed reform.
In 2018, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ merged to combat rising environmental and human rights concerns. Dedicated to fighting for change, this organization runs the world’s largest certification program. Placed in nearly 70 countries, companies work directly with farmers and rural communities to ensure they are paid a fair wage and tea is sourced without forced labor. The merged companies currently own five million hectares of farmland that comply with the certification standards set by Rainforest Alliance and UTZ. Furthermore, the companies run more than 100 projects to improve the livelihoods of farmers.
Additionally, Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) strives to create “a fairer, more sustainable tea industry for tea workers, farmers, their families as well as the environment.” Consequently, ETP reaches more than one million people. Helping farmers gain access to education is one of ETP’s goals. Year-long training schools have been implemented in various countries that teach farmers how to run their farms safely and efficiently. Since 2016, ETP has implemented programs with nearly 5,000 farmers to provide necessary household goods and financial assistance.
Sip on these Startups
Several small businesses and startups have also joined the fight to help regulate the tea industry. Mainly sourcing ingredients straight from farms themselves, these startups are changing the way tea is consumed worldwide and bringing attention to the larger issues at hand.
- Tea Leaf Theory (TTLT): Upamanyu Borkakoty and Anshuman Bharali run TTLT. The two friends started their journey after stumbling upon a small-time farmer in Assam. Inspired by the naturally grown high-quality tea he was selling, Borkakoty and Bharali set off to give rural farmers access to a larger market. Currently, TTLT collaborates with a handful of organic farmers in running micro tea processing units. A large percentage of TTLT’s profits helps workers earn fair wages.
- Permatree Superfoods: Walter Villacis, Yago Veith and Danny Carrillo began this startup to reach the Ecuadorian organic food market. To promote sustainable development, the company works directly with 400 small-scale farmers. Permatree Superfoods provides training, healthcare and retirement plans. It also offers a wage of 300% more than the minimum.
- Dweller Teas: In 2017, Elizabeth Yambem set off to achieve her dream of running a tea business inspired by her love of nature. Dweller Teas focuses on supporting indigenous farmers. The startup also helps rural communities to thrive by creating job opportunities.
- Tearaja: Originally started to revive a family business, Tearaja has now sold more than 100 million cups worldwide. With 25 years of tea industry experience, Manish Jain explains that the company transfers tea from farms directly to consumers and has eliminated the constricted supply chain. Consequently, this business model allows workers to earn higher profits and invest them back into their farms.
While these startups and certification firms may not completely resolve the issue in the tea industry, their efforts do serve to set a precedent in regulating the industry as a whole. As consumers, it is important to know where products come from and how investing in an ethical tea industry helps change the lives of farmers around the world.
– Nicole Yaroslavsky