Behind the world’s favorite brew: a living wage for tea pickers

Rachel Wilshaw

Blog post by Rachel Wilshaw

Oxfam Great Britain, Ethical Trade Manager
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The tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh has put a spotlight on the poor pay and working conditions endured by millions of people who make our clothes or grow our food.

A new report launched today by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership (a group of 28 tea companies) shows workers behind the world’s favorite brew are no exception but it also gives us real reason to hope that things are about to change.

For years, companies and non-governmental organizations (NGO) have been talking past each other; unable to agree whether workers on tea estates are paid a living wage. To try get a clear picture a group of organizations including Oxfam, the Ethical Tea Partnership, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), Unilever, and the certification organizations Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International and UTZ Certified, commissioned an independent assessment of workers’ pay and benefits on plantations in Malawi, Indonesia and Assam in India. 

The findings made uncomfortable reading for everyone involved. The report found that despite meeting legal minimum wage requirements the combined value of tea pickers’ pay and benefits in Malawi is around average for the country but only about half the World Bank’s poverty line income of $2 per person per day. In Assam, India, tea pickers earn just above the World Bank poverty line and under the average Indian wage. In West Java, Indonesia, pickers’ incomes are well above the poverty line but only a quarter of what the average Indonesian earns. 

A raw deal

Researchers found a number of deep rooted and complex factors keeping wages low.  A key problem is that pay is set for the whole sector - there is no difference in pay from one plantation to the next - and that it is pegged to the legal minimum wage which is often well below the level needed for meet a family’s basic needs. Other issues include the huge variation in the quality and take up of ‘in-kind’ benefits such as childcare or housing and the fact that workers, particularly women who make up the majority of the workforce, have little say in negotiations over pay.  

It was clear that tea pickers are getting a raw deal. It was equally clear that no one organization can solve these problems alone. Action is needed across the industry.

Concerted action

The good news is that, after seeing the results of the research, all members of the coalition - including the tea companies - now recognize the urgency of the problem and are committed to tackle problem. 

The coalition is now working to raise awareness within the industry and to get more stakeholders involved in tackling the issue including governments, trade unions, retailers and other tea companies. Starting in Malawi, it is also developing a number of national projects to tackle low wages and broader poverty issues for tea communities and inform change across the globe.  

From tea pickers to consumers

Consumers of certified products can also be reassured that certification organizations have committed to improve the certification process for waged workers so that it requires plantations to gradually increase workers’ wages to the level of a living wage.  

This is a great start but it can't end there. Other factors, which fall outside the scope of this research, must also be tackled if workers are to receive a living wage. This includes the price that retailers, tea companies and ultimately consumers pay for their tea and how it is distributed along the value chain.   

This isn’t a problem we can fix overnight. But in 15 years of working on these issues it is the best chance we have had to make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of tea pickers. In two or three years from now I hope women working on tea plantations around the globe will start to experience real change.

Photos: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Related links

Download the report: Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry

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