Living wage in the tea industry – from contested concept to positive action

The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) exists to improve the lives of tea workers and farmers and we run all sorts of programmes and projects to support this objective. Tea is one of the most intensively certified commodities with many producers carrying multiple accreditations, yet despite all this effort, it is a sector where concerns continue to be raised about low wages. At the same time, tea producers highlight their business challenges and the costs of providing a wide range of in-kind benefits, which in some countries are mandated by government regulations that have not been changed since the 1950s. The result: less than constructive conversations between different stakeholder groups that were yielding no results.

Therefore two years ago, ETP decided to stick its head above the parapet and joined forces with Oxfam to pull together a coalition of tea industry partners, NGOs, and certification bodies to find a way to move out of the morass of suspicion and ill-feeling and make some real progress.

Our first task was to see if we could work through the multiple perspectives to a shared understanding of the current reality, extent of change required in different countries, and barriers to progress. We co-ordinated detailed wage ladder assessments in three countries and carried out a range of consultation discussions on the findings -  the results and the team’s assessment of the systemic issues that are locking in low wages in certain tea growing countries are detailed in our report ‘Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry’.

This has given us the evidence base required to build a much clearer consensus about the specific challenges in each country, resulting in commitments to address them, which would have been unthinkable two years previously. ETP and Oxfam are now leading an enlarged coalition involving key decision-makers right along the tea value chain, from producers to retailers, working with governments, NGOs, unions, and certification bodies to improve wages and benefits in the tea sector.

To hear the inside story of how we got to this point – Rachel Wilshaw (Oxfam) and I will be running a workshop at the European Conference on Living Wage in Berlin in just over a week, where we will talk participants through the very messy reality of managing this partnership – and just how many ‘heated’ exchanges it took to get there. We will also explain why despite this, we see this type of coalition as fundamental to get the changes required. Most importantly, we will be setting out the different types of action that the partnership will be taking, including:

  • capacity building with employers, unions, and governments to improve the process by which wages are set
  • increasing worker representation in the wage-setting process
  • developing agreements for phased wage increases and improvements to in-kind benefit provision
  • improving certification and auditing processes on wages

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