I have probably drunk tea as my first beverage of the morning ever since I was five years old. Kettle boils, pour water over the tea leaves, wait 3-4 minutes, add milk maybe even some sugar and there you go… a lovely cup of tea. Growing up in Mauritius, our tea always came from one of the local tea estates, established by the British during the times of colonisation and a tradition which carried on through independence and the republic years…
This morning, 25 years after my first cup of tea, I wondered, out of the blue…where does my tea come from? While I have always been one of those ‘annoying shoppers’, who spend ages in one aisle turning boxes and jars around to check labels, I have recently become more concerned about where the product actually comes from and who had the hardest job to get it where it is today i.e. neatly stacked on a shelf in the supermarket or at the local grocer’s about to be placed in my basket?
India, China, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Indonesia are the world’s largest producers of tea, and world tea consumption is on the rise – with an expected quota of 3.36m by 2021, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Tea, like coffee, can be as luxurious, or as cheap as you want it to be. However, the irony is that whether it is Fortnum & Mason or Tetley, you might still be, perhaps unknowingly, supporting an industry which does not score well when it comes to paying fair wages to its employees on the tea estates. This unethical practice, by owners of tea consortiums who are themselves basking in their millions, not only means that the tea-pickers and factory workers are paid a pittance (in Assam, the minimum wage is 191 rupees /$2.91, but employees are paid 94 rupees /$1.44), but that the younger workers who feel like a burden on their families, are then often tempted to try their luck elsewhere, sometimes with dire consequences.
In 2014, an article by The Guardian opened the eyes of many. It related to the Observer’s investigations into the modern slave trade happening on the tea estates in India. Many young workers, seeking their own better fortune, would fall into the trap of traffickers who would sell them to placement agencies in Delhi. The middle class Delhiites who are continuously growing in number, are a big market for those agencies as they look for poorer individuals to do their menial domestic work. Girls and boys are taken from their homes on the estates and sold to their middle class employers – some of them are treated less badly, others suffer various types of exploitation, sexual exploitation being one of them.
Kailash Satyarthi founded BBA – Save the Childhood Movement 34 years ago, to tackle this issue of modern slavery stemming from poor wages in the tea industry. His work has helped and is still helping save many children who are then reunited with their families. While institutions such as the Ethical Tea Partnership, are ‘actively’ investigating this problem, workers are battling for a salary rise, a salary which is not even the minimum wage. While members of the tea cartels are meeting over lunch to discuss how to address this inconvenient little issue, the tea estate children are still malnourished and suffer from what a medical professor termed ‘diseases of poverty.’
It is relatively easy to ponder upon those issues, and then move on with our lives. However, often, small individual choices can make a big impact. While developing earthikes, we wanted the focus to be on funding sustainability projects to help communities around the trails, to help them help themselves. By establishing social projects related to the promotion of education, woman empowerment, and skills development, around tea estate communities, we are hoping that our little volunteering community will grow into a movement which like BBA, will make a real difference in the lives of people with whom we will work and support them in standing up for themselves, particularly against the capitalist leviathan.
So… where does your tea come from?
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