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Storm in A Tea Cup Full of Human Rights Abuses Says BHRRC Report!

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Storm in A Tea Cup Full of Human Rights Abuses Says BHRRC Report!

Brief Background:

Several large tea companies — including Unilever, Ekaterra and Starbucks — were linked to plantations at which 70 reports of human rights abuses were made in 2022, according to a new report published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-profit organization.

The abuses were linked to worker compensation, health and safety. Some employees on farms, were reprimanded or dismissed for union activity or protesting for better treatment. The reports occurred on farms in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda.

The non-profit — which urged more transparency from producers and less reliance on third-party certification groups — said these reports could represent the “tip of the iceberg,” and there could be many more.


Some Reflective Inputs from The BHRRC Report:

Roughly 1.5 million workers are employed in the tea sector. By not providing exact details about their sourcing and supply chains, tea companies are able to distance themselves from rights violations, the report says.

“Workers have a right to know who is profiting from the tea they are picking — and be able to identify where they must go to voice any grievances,” Kate Jelly, a labour rights researcher for the organization said.

The report said some companies rely too heavily on certification from third-party organizations — namely the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade — to guarantee human rights protection for workers. According to the non-profit, companies must do more due diligence for their own supply chains and engage more with stakeholders and employees to drive change.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reached out to the companies linked to the reported abuses. The responses overall “indicated a significant gap between policy commitments and how those are implemented in practice,” the report said.

Unilever, in its response, said it was aware of and addressed reported issues at some of the farms it sources from, but not others. The company said it is in contact with its suppliers to address the incidents, and plans to update its global tea supplier list by the end of the first fiscal quarter of this year.

“Cross-industry work remains critical, including through organizations such as the Ethical Tea Partnership while issues such as the earning of at least a living wage or income in global supply chains … are also critical to help improve working conditions and raise living standards overall,” Unilever said.

Ekaterra — the venture-capital-owned company made up of many of Unilever’s former tea brands, including Lipton — did not respond to the report’s authors about whether the plantations where the abuse reportedly occurred are still in its supply chain. In an emailed statement, Ekaterra’s global head of external affairs Oleg Piletsky said the company is in contact with Rainforest Alliance about what measures they will implement with regard to the tea farms they source from.

“We expect the tea from these farms to comply with sustainability standards concerning working conditions and fair wages for workers,” Piletsky said.

In a response to the report, Starbucks said its sourcing from the plantations in question is “very low” and that it investigates all allegations of human rights abuses. The company said it is reinforcing with tea suppliers that they must inform the company of any human rights violations, and tracking to confirm the farms it sources from re-certified with Rainforest Alliance.


What The Labour Rights People Have to Say On This ……!

Natalie Swan, a labour rights programme manager at BHRRC, believes an integral part of due diligence should be direct communications with workers on the ground. “That means not relying on certification, not relying on a human rights policy or a supplier code of conduct.”

Jelly says …. Tea is an industry rooted in tradition, based on a system that harks backs to a colonial era. Although there is an increasing number of smallholders growing tea, around 50% globally is still grown on plantations. Many workers on tea estates still rely on their employees for food, housing and education, alongside wages, a situation that creates a culture of dependency,

In common with most global agricultural supply chains, the tea workforce is largely female and on temporary contacts, exacerbating this vulnerability and leaving people at risk of poor health and safety measures, low pay and gender-based violence.

Jenny Costelloe, executive director of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), says the sector in India, where all but seven of the abuses occurred, is governed by the Plantations Labour Act, which was introduced in 1951 and obliges companies to supply a range of welfare benefits. Possibly enlightened at the time, it’s no longer fit for purpose, she says. “When companies want to economise, these welfare provisions are hit.”

The act is gradually being replaced by new occupational health and safety laws, but Costelloe believes companies can do more now to protect the rights of tea workers.

Jenny further says, “I think more companies need to buy directly from the producer,” be that a co-operative of smallholders or a tea estate. “That direct relationship is really important … (and) means that the producer has a better understanding of what’s expected (of them).

“Where things break down is when there are intermediaries, traders who buy tea and sell it on, so that the brand loses visibility along its supply chain.”


Cycle of Debt

One tea plucker, who has been on a certified farm for the past 10 years, said workers were paid 137 rupees ($2) a day to harvest 24 kg (53 lb) of tea leaves, below a national minimum wage of 250 rupees a day for informal agriculture labourers.  In Assam last year, in a meeting with tea associations, it was decided to hike the workers’ wage by Rs 27, thus raising their daily wage to Rs 232 & Rs 210 in Brahmaputra Valley & Barak Valley respectively. Also assured to raise Govt subsidy for orthodox tea from Rs 7 to Rs 10 per kg”.

Those who did not meet the quota were paid less, said 24-year-old Tanesh Dhanuar, whose wife also works on the tea farm.

Estate owners justify low wages because of the benefits they are legally required to provide, like housing, toilets, health facilities and subsidised food, tea experts say. However, few of these facilities were provided, according to the research.

The study found 54 percent of workers on certified farms had fallen into debt – practically the same rate as on non-certified estates – with many borrowing from plantation owners and creating a debt cycle which can trap workers for years.

Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) said she was not surprised by the findings, as companies rely far too heavily on certification and audits to monitor working conditions and detect labour abuses despite their limited scope.

“They (buyers, retailers, and brands) cannot push the risk and responsibility down the supply chain as this will ultimately impact on workers,” added the ETI’s head of slavery strategy.

Several tea companies acknowledged the extent of the problem and said they ran projects to support the local communities.

“Assam is one of the most challenged areas we buy from and we’re sadly all too aware of the wide spectrum of social issues it faces,” Keith Writer, supply director for the British tea firm Bettys and Taylors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Lead taken by Assam ……!

2 years ago, tens of thousands of tea plantation workers in Assam, northeast India, went on strike to demand higher pay, unions said amid plans to increase the daily wage from about $2.

Up to 400,000 workers went on a day-long strike in Assam – which accounts for over half of India’s tea production – calling for daily pay of 350 rupees ($4.75), unions and activists said.

The strike follows recent protests including a human chain and bicycle rally amid growing unrest over wages – which range from 145 to 167 rupees in different parts of Assam – with a government state committee set up in 2018 to examine the issue.

India’s tea industry, the second largest in the world after China’s, employs 3.5 million workers, many of whom are subject to labour abuses and live in poverty on the estates where they work, studies by various activists and academics have revealed.

“I can’t afford to lose even one day’s wages but there is no choice but to strike and raise my voice now,” said Prem Kranti, who has worked as a tea plucker for 15 years in Assam.

“If we have to eat well, take care of our children and survive the rising cost of everything, we need more money. How can we survive on what we get? It is a pittance,” the 36-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

Assam labour officials said the recommendations of a one-man state committee on proposed wages had recently been circulated among tea workers and plantation owners to seek their feedback.

“The wage suggested by the committee is lower than what workers were expecting,” said J.B. Ekka, principle secretary of Assam’s labour welfare department. He did not give details about the proposed amount and the committee’s report is not public.

“We are committed to resolving this issue at the earliest and ensuring that workers get their dues,” Ekka added.

The striking workers have also called for better health and education facilities for their families. Estate owners often justify low wages because of the benefits they are legally required to provide from housing to healthcare, tea experts say.

“The government has given the (tea) industry a lot of subsidies but nothing for workers,” Das said.


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This blog has been collated and compiled by the internal staff of Karma Global with the knowledge and expertise that they possess, besides adaptation, illustration, derivation, transformation, collection from various sources, for its monthly newsletter Issue 13 of July 2023 and in case of specific or general information or compliance updates for that matter, kindly reach out to the Karma Global Team –

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