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04 March 2024

A fairer cuppa is brewing in India's tea estates

Fairtrade has revolutionised the lives of tea pickers with its minimum wages and premiums besides giving women an equal status with men. (AFP)

By Kate Hodal

As you wait for the kettle to boil in the morning, you might think nothing of the black leaves that will provide the much-needed pick-me-up of your first cuppa. But to get those leaves from tea plantation to your teacup is a process involving a few thousand miles, a few hundred people and a whole lot of sweat and tears.

Very few people know that the real story of tea is one of journeys and poverty. Much of the world's tea hails from the misty mountains of Africa and South-east Asia, where high altitudes and regular rainfall ensure good crops but not always good working conditions.

Tea pickers worldwide have historically worked long hours for low pay. But a decade-long slump in tea prices has resulted in even lower wages for those in the conventional tea market.

That is why during the Fairtrade Fortnight from February 22 to March 7, tea drinkers around the world are being encouraged to swap their daily cuppa for a Fairtrade one. The few extra fils means that small-holding tea producers all across the world could potentially improve their working and living conditions.

For a single cup of tea to do that might seem impossible. But it is not. The green leaf is now an emerald gold worth some £1 billion (Dh5.5bn), with India producing a fair share of the world's conventional and Fairtrade tea.

Despite its worth, however, tea prices in India are unstable due to weak domestic demand and increased international competition. For the conventional tea market, where unstable market prices are reflected in unstable wages for the tea-pickers, this often means that a morning cup of regular tea could actually equate to exploitation of the workers who picked and produced it.

In the Nilgiri Hills, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, however, things are different. Emerald terraces of tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, plantations that produced the first-ever Fairtrade teas made available to consumers in 1994.

In the past 16 years, Fairtrade here has revolutionised communities with its minimum wages and premiums – the separate monthly stipends that help fund community development.

Located some 2,000 metres above sea level, Chamraj Tea Estate is just one of the Nilgiri's Fairtrade tea plantations. Its 850 hectares of bright green terraces stretch across 20km and are punctuated with women in brightly-coloured headscarves, busy at work "plucking" tea.

Eight hours a day, six days a week, and with rubber finger gloves on just their thumbs and forefingers, they pick the waxy green tea leaf with a snap of the wrist and chuck it, deftly, into the large wicker baskets suspended from the crown of their forehead.

After each worker has collected some 17kg, the green leaves are "withered" – laid out on a long mesh trough and dried with hot air – before being oxidated (a natural process that occurs when the tea is left on its own and ferments) and then crushed, all within three hours of being picked.

Their work seems backbreaking, but Fairtrade has given these tea pluckers opportunities that they never before thought possible, says Chamraj's Fairtrade officer Greaves Henriksen.

"We've seen a massive change in living standards because of Fairtrade. It's vastly improved working conditions and, along with investment from the surrounding community, has allowed us to build a hospital, school and orphanage, and even start a pension and housing retirement scheme for our workers."

Tea plantations across India have historically recruited illiterate peasant labourers to work in the fields, a method still in practice today. Indian law requires plantations to provide primary education for the workers' children, but because of the low level of education, many of those children go on to work in the plantations themselves.

At some Fairtrade plantations like Chamraj, however, schooling is provided up to college level. With the estate's Fairtrade premiums used to build science labs, provide computers and teach English, tea pickers' children are leaving home to fulfill wider job opportunities – many of whom are working as doctors and engineers in the city or abroad.

"Most of our workers come from the lowest social caste and are consequently ignored by wider society," says Chamraj's Director Titus Gerard Pinto. "Now they have the promise of a good job, a good retirement and a good education for their children – opportunities that have never before been available to them."

Slowly but surely, Fairtrade is also helping to revolutionise a traditionally male-dominated society. Almost as many women as men now make up the committee that decides on how the Fairtrade premium should be spent, which, in turn, is establishing a gender equality never before seen in India's conventional south.

Madina Rajapapa, 39, who has worked at Chamraj for the past 20 years, says being part of the committee has brought her more respect at home and in her community.

"My three children have all been able to go to school, which is something I wish I could have done. But just being able to be on the committee has educated and empowered me, and established a different quality of life for me and my family," she said.

The committee is incredibly important, says Pinto: "For women, especially lower-caste women, to sit as equals among men – with whom, in Indian society, they traditionally haven't had much of a voice – is in itself a credit of respect."

Fairtrade might offer a great deal to the pickers and producers, but it's still a long way off from taking over the conventional tea market.

Although Chamraj produces some 1,200 tonnes of tea per year, only 10 per cent of it is Fairtrade. Sold as Twinings, Clipper and Jacksons of Piccadilly, Chamraj's teas are also exported to the UAE, the US, Germany and Japan – but there is just not enough of a global demand right now to increase production at any of the tea estates, says Fairtrade Foundation's Martine Julseth.

"Tea estates and smallholders across the world are only selling relatively small amounts of tea in the Fairtrade market at the moment because of low consumer demand," she says. "For example, currently just 10 per cent of the tea market in the UK is Fairtrade. We're hoping to achieve 50 per cent by 2012, but we need the public to understand just how important it is for the tea pickers and producers all over the world for us to make that switch."

So the next time the kettle boils, think of making that switch – as you never know what kind of difference it could make to a person's life far away.


Tea facts


Originally native to South-east Asia, tea – or the waxy green leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant – has been cultivated, consumed and even used medicinally, for millennia. But it did not become the commercial drink that it is today until the British began cultivating the stuff in the eastern hills of India in the 1830s.

The green leaves are "withered" – laid out on a long mesh trough and dried with hot air – before being oxidated (a process that occurs when the tea is left on its own and ferments) and then crushed, all within three hours of being picked.


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