Building a coalition to address low wages in the tea industry

When I picked up my Sunday newspaper this weekend, two stories jumped out at me. The headline on the front page was ‘The scale of low pay in Britain is a national scandal’ and highlighted that the Archbishop of York is to head a year-long commission on the need for a ‘living wage’ to tackle poverty and inequality.

A double page spread later in the paper focused on the plight of children and young women from Assam who had been trafficked to Delhi and further afield as domestic labour and the exploitation and abuse that this leaves them open to. Assam is one of the key tea growing areas in India, producing tea for the domestic and export markets and the article linked trafficking to poverty and low wages in the area.

ETP exists to improve the lives of tea workers and their environment and support the development of a thriving industry that is socially just and environmentally sustainable. Fundamental to our work, are our local staff who need to understand both the industry and the local context in which it is operating, if we are to be able to work effectively to address the challenges in each location.

So when I was in India earlier this month, attending the launch of the new India Tea Sustainability Code which aims at raising standards for the majority of producers who serve the domestic market, my colleague Diya Sharma and I also spent time talking to our contacts in NGOs and development organisations who are a crucial part of planning and implementing our programmes.

Through these relationships we are aware of the general situation in terms of human trafficking from the North of India, the additional vulnerabilities faced by communities in specific areas of Assam where land disputes, conflict, and flooding has led to the long term displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the challenges faced by the police and other organisations dealing with these issues.

While none of our local contacts have ever indicated that they have evidence of trafficking on any of the estates that we work with in Assam, we have made it clear to them, and the journalist who wrote the article, that we would take any such evidence very seriously and make sure that the relevant organisations were engaged to address it. We will continue to build on the existing partnerships we, and our members have, that focus on improving the situation for women working on tea estates:  Promoting fairer working environments, Kenya and Helping at the heart of tea communities, Sri Lanka. There are some excellent projects supporting adolescent girls in Assam and we are in discussions with those involved about the most effective ways of scaling them up.

One of the important roles we play at ETP is to use our expertise and relationships within the tea sector, and with other key stakeholders, to bring different organisations together to tackle complex or challenging issues. ETP has been concerned about wages for a number of years and, as the article in the Observer highlighted, we have been leading a ground-breaking project with Oxfam which assessed the pay and benefits of workers on tea plantations in Assam, Malawi, and Indonesia:  Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry. This was the first time that such a multi-stakeholder partnership involving companies, NGOs, certification bodies, and donor agencies have worked together on wage issues in the tea sector.

The report assessed wages and benefits against national and international benchmarks, analysed wage-setting processes, and identified the systemic problems that are locking in low wages. We are very pleased that the release of the report has led to a widening of the coalition committed to working together to address wage issues in the tea sector as producers and retailers join the consortium.

As Sunday’s paper highlighted, gaps between minimum wage and estimations of a ‘living wage’ are issues across the globe, from the UK to India and across sectors, ranging from garments to electronics. Given the structure of the industry, the importance of the domestic market in places like India and the way wages are negotiated and set in producing countries, there is no straightforward route or easy lever that will lead to quick results. Solutions have to be led from inside the producing countries.

However, just as the Archbishop of York is aiming to lead ‘a national conversation about low pay in Britain’, we are committed to facilitating that conversation within the tea sector and using the influence and expertise we have to help progress change. With Oxfam, we will bring together international stakeholders to contribute to this process and are delighted by the commitment that has been shown by such a wide range of organisations to join the coalition we are leading.

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