More than any other crop, tea plantations have changed the face of many countries, but now they face the threats of climate change, the effects of deforestation (from when the original forests were being replaced by the tea plant, Camellia sinensis) water shortages, and demands of fair wages from workers. The increase in average temperatures can affect the production for tea industry.
Research stations are springing up to study the potential impacts of climate change on the sector and to devise future strategies for mitigation. Multinationals such as Unilever, which operates a factory for instant tea in Sri Lanka, have embarked on several initiatives to educate workers on environmental issues; water conservation for example.
As for low compensation among workers, Oxfam is striving to identify a minimum wage to be allocated to farmers who work on tea plantations, as sometimes worker’s earnings do not even reach the threshold necessary to be considered a living wage.
Equitable remuneration shall be considered a fundamental right by the UN, but in some countries it is still a difficult topic. Tea industry workers offer a model case study.
Tea is the most popular drink in the world, after water and tea plantations are typically found in countries in the developing world. Despite its popularity, some countries were able to set minimum wages but they often do not seem sufficient to ensure a respectable standard of living. Now there is a coalition led by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership that has decided to change things.
The strategic campaign to ensure a good standard of living for workers in the tea
is supported by Unilever, the Sustainable Trade Initiative IDH, the certifiers of Fairtrade International, the Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified, Oxfam and ETP. These groups have launched an investigation into the costs, benefits, environmental and social aspects of the cultivation of tea in India, Indonesia and Malawi. The study, entitled “Understanding Wages in the Tea Industry”, revealed “systemic problems locking in low wages". Among the key findings, are the salaries that are set at regional or local level, without taking into account the company’s standards; wages are affected by government policies that apply for every plantation and for all of their employees, thus enabling companies to manage costs and productivity; and finally outline the benefits, such as housing, which often make up a large part of the income. These figures vary significantly from company to company, and workers almost never have bargaining power to negotiate these benefits.
Oxfam, in collaboration with the Ethical Tea Partnership, is carving out a role as a major player through a campaign involving multinational companies and aims to make progress towards an adequate income for both those who work in the plantations and for small landowners, so that they can lead a dignified existence.
The coalition commissioned by Oxfam involves a wide range of subjects, including the largest industries in the tea, such as Twinings, Tetley, Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea producers), De Master, Unilever, and retailers such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, along with governments, trade unions and NGOs.
The campaign will start from Malawi and then expand to different countries and on different fronts: support for business and investment, changes to the process by which wages are established, growth of workers' representatives, access to financing for small business owners, improving living conditions for farmers, skills training and the ability to access the banking services.