Tea workers deserve rights – not charity


This morning I posted this on Facebook:

“On this 70th International Human Rights day, I am sitting with a nice, hot cup of tea, looking out at the snow falling, as if on cue, just in time for me and my daughter (who gave me the flattering mug!) to get in the Christmas mood and start putting up the decorations.

Thousands of miles away, by contrast, the people who grew the tea I’m drinking face blistering hot sun, carrying back-breaking loads of tea (they’re paid by weight), and the danger of meeting wild elephants on the way back to their two-room huts… That’s why a group in Assam is calling on us to observe Human Rights Day as *Tea Workers Rights Day*.

So please join me, if you will, as I raise my cup of Munnar tea, raise your Tetleys, your PG tips, your lapsang suchongs, your Earl Greys, your Lady Greys and your decaff Tesco own brand… and make a toast “To tea workers’ human rights!”

And then maybe go and make some toast to go with your tea.”

Moments later, Facebook, doubtless having detected a whiff of altruism in my post, suggested that I might like to add a ‘donate’ button to my post to raise money for my “charity”.

But that’s the awful irony – why should workers in a multi-million pound global industry, producing the second most popular drink in the world after tea, including brands that are named and prized for their distinctive quality – Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon – be in need of charity? Or, indeed, in need of food rations from their employers? 

This industry, which is predicated on cheap and plentiful manual labour, and on low, low prices – restricting the ability of those employers to pay decent wages – needs a jolly good shake up.

And it starts with you making that toast.

I mean the toast to tea workers rights, not the toast you made to go with the tea. 


If but for a single instant you could see this world the way it really is…

“By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image—superimposed—and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is—undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored—you would drop in your tracks!”

This is a passage from an extraordinary book I read as a teenager called The Futurological Congress. I have since been haunted by the image it portrays of a world in which people have the impression that they are blissfully happy and have all the comforts of life, delicious food, comfortable homes, beautiful clothes.  But the reality – which the hero is able to see after taking a dose of up’n’at’m, the antidote to mascon – is that they are dressed in rags, eating gruel from troughs and clambering up empty lift shafts (the hero always wondered why people were so out of breath when they came out of the lift…).

Tonight I saw a film called ‘Machines’ by Rahul Jain. It is the cinematic equivalent of up’n’at’m. It is not the first film to strip away the illusion of the seductive images of life that advertising constantly sleets into our consciousness, to reveal the mind-numbing drudgery, brutality and ugliness of cheap labour production. But it is one of the most powerful I have seen.

It absolutely made me drop in my tracks.

The only music is the ceaseless thrumming of the machines (the mechanical ones). Human “machines” silently tend the mechanical ones – stoking their fiery throats, oiling their antediluvian limbs, feeding endless rivers of pure white or brightly coloured fabric through their roaring rollers, heaving vats of the dark and poisonous dye or the giant bales of intricately patterned voille that it miraculously transforms into. (One of the most striking things  about Jain’s film is how beautiful he makes the ugliness of industrial dirt and poverty.)

The only voice is when – very occasionally – the workers speak. Several – with quiet resignation – speak of their 12 hour shifts and their inability to educate their children on their pitiful pay. One (literally looking over his shoulder) about the fear of unionising, another of the futility of attempting to do so.

A young boy – of roughly GCSE age – describes how every day when he arrives at the factory gates his gut tells him to turn round and run away… but he has no choice but to go in to start his 12 hour shift. (Later, we see another boy his age repeatedly nodding off and almost toppling into the machine he is monotonously tending.) He has swallowed the line he’s been fed that by starting young he’ll learn valuable skills. But the adults reveal that this is no life to aspire to. It is a life that they have no choice but to accept due to their poverty.

Another worker says that all he knows is his room and the area of the factory where he works solidly from the time he wakes to the time he sleeps – he has never set eyes on the factory owner, has no idea who he is or what he looks like.

The next image is of said factory owner, predictably plump and well-to-do, who seems to know the workers a lot better than they know him. He explains the importance of keeping the workers a little hungry because if they get too comfortable they will tell the company to “fuck off”. He also explains that 50% of the workers do not care about their families and if he paid them more they would just spend it on alcohol and tobacco.

One man denies that this is exploitation, because he has chosen – even got into debt – to come from hundreds of miles away to work here. And is grateful for it. “Poverty is harassment.” he explains. And adds, with the universal fatalism of the poor the world over, “There is no cure.”

But he is wrong. There is a cure.

The cure is workers uniting and demanding their internationally agreed rights (even the suitably villainous looking contractor knows that it is the disunity of the workers – migrants from other impoverished parts of India – that makes them vulnerable).

The cure is the government enforcing its laws on child labour, health and safety, working hours and minimum pay.

The cure is us – you – the consumer making it known loud and clear that yes we are always happy to find a bargain, but not at the cost of turning men into machines.

Jain (unseen and unheard by us) is confronted by the workers at one point. Because we dont see him, they are, in effect, confronting us. They accuse him (us) of being just like all the others – like the politicians coming and hearing their tragic story and then going away and doing nothing about it. “Help us get 8 hour shifts instead of 12,” he says. “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it – won’t we, brothers?” His co-workers punch the air and shout their assent.

They are the cure.

Assuming they are not sacked for unionising (there are plenty more poor to take their place), and their fledgling leader doesn’t mysteriously disappear…

Jain does his bit to support them by showing us his film. Now what can we do to support them?

Tea: 21st century science for crops. 19th century treatment for workers

Pembilla Orumai demonstrators in Munnar, September 2015. The poster of MM Mani in the background was torn down minutes later. Image: Sabita Banerji 2015

Breaking news…scientists have decoded the genetic building blocks of the tea plant! This, according to the BBC, “could lead to ways to improve the quality and price of tea”! Hoorah for the wonders of 21st century technology…!

Meanwhile, in the same week, the primitive horrors of the early 20th century are being replayed on an Indian tea plantation, where 19th century working conditions have largely been preserved; The Hindu depicts a woman on hunger strike calling for political change being forcibly hospitalised, her hair dishevelled, what looks like blood on her legs, humiliatingly exposed when her sari rides up during her unceremonious manhandling.

Thus Gomathy, one of the original leaders of the 2015 protest by Pembilla Orumai against poor pay and working conditions in Munnar, Kerala, relives the treatment of suffragettes like Marion Wallace Dunlop in 1909. Originally an informal, grassroots organisation, Pembilla Orumai (meaning Unity of Women) was established last year as a formal trade union and aligned with the centrist Aam Admi party.

Gomathy, along with Kasualya and Rajeswary , was fasting to demand the resignation of M.M. Mani, a minister in the Kerala State government for implying that during the 2015 strike there had been improper goings on in the forests. A silly, childish accusation, but one designed to trivialise an historic – and heroic – act by a group of women workers standing up against patriarchy. Not only the patriarchy of their employers, but also of male-dominated trade unions and of politicians like Mani whose billboard poster I witnessed being torn down during the protest. The Wire, reporting on the incident last week suggests that “For the misogynistic male audience of Kerala, Mani had the perfect words to enthral the masses.”

Although universal suffrage may seem a greater or more important cause to fast for than an apology for a schoolboy insult, in effect Gomathy and her colleagues too were protesting the contemptuous dismissal of women as a political force. The hunger striking suffragettes were demanding to be treated as political prisoners rather than petty criminals when imprisoned for acts of politically motivated “vandalism”. Gomathy and her fellow hunger strikers were also demanding to be treated with respect and dignity. To be taken seriously.

The most famous of hunger strikers was of course Mahatma Gandhi. Although in later years he fasted for great causes like opposition to the proposed separate political representation for dalit castes, interestingly his first politically motivated fast was in 1918 in support of textile workers in Ahmedabad striking for a pay rise.

The Munnar authorities claim that the forcible hospitalisation of Gomathy and her fellow hunger strikers was necessary because of the deteriorating health of the strikers, just as in 1909, forcible feeding of hungers striking suffragettes was justified as “ordinary hospital treatment” to save the women’s lives. Let us hope that this slide back into the bad old days does not go that far.

Let us also hope that they do not have to wait as long as we have for the genetic decoding of the tea plant before human ingenuity discovers a way of improving not just the quality and price of the comodity, but the quality of life of the women who tend and pluck it.

Like Marion Wallace, Gomathy, Kasualya and Rajeswary could each say her hunger strike was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me” (Guardian).  Let us hope that the daughters of these courageous women never have to suffer the indignities that their mothers have gone through, and that they can live and work in dignity and with the respect that any of us would expect for ourselves and our children in the 21st century.

How to free someone in your life from slavery

Image: Personel Today http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/employers-can-prepare-modern-slavery-act/
Image: Personel Today http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/employers-can-prepare-modern-slavery-act/

“One of the biggest obstacles to tackling modern slavery is that it’s often hiding in plain sight”  says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and, as part of its 50 For Freedom campaign, has shared 10 ways to spot modern slavery.

Every one of these situations is experienced to a greater or lesser extent by India’s tea plantation workers. Yet, because their predicament began decades ago they are not usually considered to be victims of “modern slavery”. Which means they are not eligible for rescue and redress.

Is that fair? Judge for yourself.  And,  if you drink the tea they produce, you could help free them from slavery.


ILO: “Many victims of modern slavery are deceived into accepting what sound like good opportunities at first, but turn out to be lies.”

Gwyn Campbell writes (1): “A common occurrence, noted here in relation to Indo-China, the Bruma-Thai border, Arabia, Persia, India, Indonesia and Sulu, was that people sold themselves or their children in times of famine or other disaster. Slavery in such cases was sometimes justified as a form of ‘poor relief’…their condition differed from that of chattel slaves in that their families often accompanied them and laboured with them. They were also paid wages, although at a minimal rate. Most importantly, when their contracts ended they were free to leave the plantations. Thus, although planters often found ways to keep them, they were legally free.”


ILO: “Victims can be isolated physically and forced to work in remote locations or simply prevented from communicating with friends, family or anyone else who speaks their own language.”

Keya Dasgupta (2) tells us that “… like slaves in the Americas, in both Mauritius and Assam, indentured labourers were uprooted from their homelands, settled in regions where they had no links with local people, and kept isolated on the plantations… a people uprooted from their own habitat, without any links with the surrounding community, would provide the ideal workforce for the exploitative mechanism of the plantation enterprise. ”


ILO: “Confiscating passports or other important documents is a common means of coercing workers into accepting poor living and working conditions.”

Plantation labourers today are highly unlikely to have passports, and even less likely to have done so a hundred years ago. But as migrants from other areas, their lack of citizenship in their new home often causes conflict. Assam’s tea workers are descended from central Indian tribal communities, yet are ineligible for the state benefits of local tribals. The plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil tea workers is another case in point “Although citizenship was finally granted to all stateless Persons of Indian Origin in 2003, most tea pickers in Sri Lanka still live without housing and land rights or access to basic services.” (New Internationalist – 2014)


ILO: “Many victims of forced labour are trying to pay off a debt. It’s no ordinary debt though—as the victim has no power to negotiate the terms, which can change at the discretion of the “lender” and be passed down from generation to generation. This is called debt bondage and it’s especially common in Southern Asia.”

Dasgupta: “In the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the plantation entrepreneurs, faced with a shortage of cheap and servile local workforce, took recourse to the immigration of thousands of labourers from economically depressed areas of the sub-continent. Through a system of legal compulsions initiated by the Colonial state, starting with the Workman’s Breach of Contract Act in 1859, they initiated the ‘indenture system’ of labour recruitment in the Brahmaputra Valley. This system, initiated for overseas migration of labour to the West Indies in the 1830s, was almost akin to slavery that preceded it, except that the workers were paid wages.”


ILO: “Irregular or late wages don’t always point to modern slavery. But when they’re deliberately withheld as a means of forcing workers to accept poor conditions or prevent them from changing jobs, it becomes a sign of forced labour.”

Even before India’s current demonetisation crisis, in which the withdrawal of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes has led to a severe cash shortage impacting heavily on low paid labourers, tea workers faced endless delays in wage payments. “Staff of 242 tea gardens yet to receive wages” is a fairly typical headline. While I’m not aware of evidence that withholding wages is a deliberate tactic,  the payment of minimal cash wages supplemented by tied housing, food rations etc seals tea workers’ dependency on their employers.


ILO: “Extreme work hours seem like an obvious indicator of forced labour, but in practice, establishing whether that’s the case can be fairly complex. As a rule of thumb, if an employee is forced to work more overtime than national laws allow—and is under some kind of threat—it’s considered forced labour.”

Fairtrade certified estates commit to paying overtime, but in general tea pluckers are paid according to the weight of tea they pluck. When Munnar’s tea workers struck over wages and working hours and conditions in 2015, they won a slight increase in wages, but only on condition they plucked more tea.

The World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) investigating a complaint about the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s funding of Assam’s Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited found that “the IFC has not assured itself that the wages paid by the client are consistent with IFC’s commitment to support jobs which offer a ‘way out of poverty’ or ‘protect and promote the health’ of workers,”


ILO: “A labour inspector in Brazil remembers finding workers in a fazenda, or plantation, housed in plastic shacks and drinking contaminated water… While not proof of forced labour on their own, poor working conditions are often red flag.”

Multiple reports testify to the poor housing, health, and occupational safety standards on Indian tea plantations – including most recently the 2016 CAO report, the 2014 Columbia Law School report and the BBC’s 2015 reports which claimed that “Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses… There was also a disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, child labour being used.”


8. THEY’VE BEEN THREATENED OR INTIMIDATED (ILO: “Threats and intimidation are a staple of modern slavery, typically exploiting the vulnerability of a person who’s already in a weaker position.”),  9. THEY’RE PHYSICALLY TRAPPED (ILO: “Kidnapping people for exploitation or keeping them locked up is a clear sign of forced labour.”) and 10. THEY’VE BEEN BEATEN OR RAPED (ILO: “Physical violence is, tragically, a common feature of modern slavery. It can be used to exert control over victims or force them into performing tasks they didn’t agree to…”)

(1)  Gwyn Campbell, ‘Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia’
(2)) Keya Dasgupta, ‘The coming of tea in the Brahmapura Valley’.

Liberals of the world – peer out from your social media echo chambers!

Daryl Davis befriending KKK members. Photo: Daily Beast. Accidental Courtesy

On December 31st mine will be part of the huge, collective sigh of relief that 2016 is over.

And I will partake of the tremulous collective hope that in 2017 the tidal wave of bombed civilians, terrorist attacks, drowned refugees and beloved celebrities’obituaries will abate… and that the rightward swing of the global political pendulum will slow, stop – and maybe even reverse.

But one of my New Year’s resolutions will be number five of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

To understand that there will be those who are celebrating 2016 and looking forward to 2017 with renewed hope; like  people in the American ‘rust belt’ who genuinely believe that Trump can breathe life back into their defunct car industries and money into their empty pockets.

Like the Brits stuck in unskilled, low-income jobs (or no jobs) who felt left behind by globalisation and genuinely believe that Brexit will give them the opportunities that their more educated compatriots – or their migrant neighbours – have had.

And, I suppose, like the despots and oligarchs who genuinely believe that they are achieving political stability for their countries by defeating those they see as terrorists… (though that will be harder as I see images of bewildered children in the rubble of their homes and drowned bodies washing up on European shores).

Because, fellow liberals, if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that we need to take long, hard – and honest – look at ourselves.

It’s that loudly lauding our liberal values into our social media echo chambers, preaching love and tolerance to our converted friends and relatives and heaping scorn on those who disagree with us, calling them stupid and selfish, will not change anything.

It’s that political correctness merely stifled the voices of those who disagree with us, it didn’t change their minds or hearts. And that the pressure of their silenced fears, dissatisfaction and perceived disenfranchisement built up so much that at the first chink of opportunity it exploded in the opposite direction to their silencers.

I see now that political correctness has been the equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “Lalalalaa” whenever we hear words that we find offensive.

To genuinely win people over to our views –  we need to do two things; firstly to understand the fears that underlie their views. And secondly to allay those fears. To seek to understand, and then to be understood.

If someone says “Foreigners are taking our jobs”, instead of crying “Racist!” and quoting stats about how much immigrants contribute to the economy as a whole, could we instead look into what underlies that individual person’s statement? Is it really racism or is it actually well founded concern about not having a job? And the fact that someone has told them that the reason they don’t have a job is because of foreign migrants? If so, what could be done to remedy that?

If someone says “I hate Muslims”, is that racism? An argument of comparative religion? Theological discourse? Or is it an echo of the terror that terrorists were actively seeking to create? If so, what could be done to remedy that?

If  African American blues musician, Daryl Davies, can befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan to try to understand why they hate him without ever having met him (resulting in 200 members leaving the KKK), surely we can do the same?

Human rights are for all humans

human_rights_day_logoToday is International Human Rights Day.

“Human rights” means different things to different people. But they belong to all people.

They are, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family…”

This is echoed in the International Bill of Human Rights; “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (by which presumably, is meant siblinghood).

In other words, human rights are not just there to protect burglars from being shot by homeowners, or (please note, Mrs May) to prevent terrorists from being deported .

Neither are they just for people who happen to be born into economic situations that enable them to live in decent houses, be decently clothed, have a nutritious diet, educate their children and be treated when sick. And not to be subjected to physical violence or deprived of their liberty. Or denied legal representation when these rights are abused.

They are also there for those who grow and process the crops and manufacture and transport the decent clothes, nutritious food, medical implements etc that the fortunate few have the money to purchase. Like the workers on Assam’s tea plantations many of whose rights are being abused, according to a World Bank report.

They are there for those who sweep the floors and clean the toilets of the decent housing of the fortunate few, who cook their nutritious food and transport their children to school. Like the domestic workers of Trinidad and Tobago who are not even recognised as workers, and are therefore denied their labour rights.

“To deny people their human rights”, said Nelson Mandela, “is to challenge their very humanity.”

I’ve been rivetted lately to a television series called 3%. It’s a dark, Brazilian tale of a dystopian world in which 97% of the population live in abject poverty, with few amenities and are recognisable by their tattered clothes and dirt smeared faces (the latter never quite explained).

When they turn 20 they can register to go through a Process which, if they pass, will allow them to go ‘Offshore’ where the lucky, happy, well clothed and clean-faced 3% live and benefit from amazing medical advances.

As far as I can see, the only fictional part of this story is the bit where the poor 97% are regularly given a chance to join the 3%. The reality is that the poorest mostly stay poor. And the gap between the richest and poorest grows ever larger. According to Oxfam, “The richest 1% now has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined”

Things for the real world equivalent of the 97% are gradually getting better. Economist, Johan Norberg tells us that “In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37% in 1990 and less than 10% in 2015.”

Water Aid offers another positive example; in Malawi 9 in 10 people now have access to safe water, while in  1990 it was just 4 in 10.

But that is still far too many people without clean water and/or living on less that $2 a day. Why should there be even one person living on less than a living wage or without a living income?

Too many industries still rely on poverty wages, endless working hours and abusive practices to make sure the decent clothes and knick knacks are on the shelves exactly when the fortunate few want them. They accept it as though it was a law of nature, innocently asking, how do you expect the industry to survive if we pay more? As Franklin D Roosevelt said, “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue”.

Denying people human rights on the grounds of business expediency is not right. And it’s not decent. If you agree, the UN invites you to Stand up for someone’s rights today!

It’s not fair! (but my phone is…)


Conflict-free washed tungsten. (Photo from  Fairphone website)

“It’s not fair!” Thus spake Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, opening a talk on living wages (or rather lack of them). Well, not “spake” so much as shouted. At decibels sufficient to be a wake-up call in the post-lunch torpor of the assembled company.

Fairness is one of the intrinsic principles that children grasp from an early age – and we make judgements all through life about how to respond to unfairness, whether it is we ourselves or others that are the recipients of the short stick.

I was brought up in a society and at a time where/when huge differences in salary and status were considered normal and natural. As I grew up I started to see this as unfair and to try to work against it.

Unfairness is particularly stark in today’s global economy;  just 85 people now own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. Millions toil for long hours in return for a pittance in farms, plantations, factories, quarries and on fishing vessels producing goods – and large profits – for others.

I hasten to explain that I’m talking about fairness in the sense of justice or equality, not in the sense of complexion (a misunderstanding that allegedly caused some awkwardness in India when Oxfam claimed to be working for a “fairer world”).

Efforts to redress this unfairness are fraught with difficulty. The global village is a highly complex construct with a seemingly infinite number of vested interests and interdependencies, visible and invisible.

Yet one company seems to have found a way to slice through it all. Fairphone.

From the no-frills brown cardboard packaging it arrives in, to the modular design (meaning you can take it apart yourself for easy fixes and upgrades), to the tough built-in cover to the fact it doesn’t come with a charger (“you’ve probably already got several at home”) – it goes against the grain of the seller holding all the cards.

Oh, and talking of cards, Fairphones are not locked, so you can use your own sim card in them. Or two sim cards, even.

One of the standard screen-savers they offer is the image above of miners in the DRC holding a handful of the conflict-free tungsten they’ve just dug up and which helps the phone now clutched in your own sweaty hand to vibrate.

Videos on their website show the social enterprise’s staff tracking down the goldmine which produces the gold used in making its electrical connectors. (“It feels safe”), and working with the factory that assembles the phones to set up a worker welfare fund managed by workers themselves.

Whenever there’s an exposé along the lines of “Beyoncé’s t-shirt made by sweatshop workers!” – I want to scream you could pretty much replace Beyoncé’s name with any celebrity’s name, or anyone’s name, for that matter, including your own. Because, truth be told, there are very few garments – or modern day products – that are not made under such conditions.

So, if you went looking for it, I’m sure you would find some example of unfairness – child labour, or lower than living wages, or long working hours – in Fairphone’s supply chain, but you have to admit they’ve gone several extra miles to guard against it.

Kudos to them.

A company that even attempts to extract itself from that morass is courageous indeed. It’s probably a bit easier to do with a five hundred Euro phone than a five pound t-shirt, or with a cheap, ubiquitous commodity like tea – but admirable nevertheless.

Some other companies whose conscience has been wakened by Dr Sentamu’s cri de coeur may want to take note. Not quite living wages yet, but greater fairness? It can be done.

The strapline is ‘Buy a Fairphone. Join a movement.’ That’s just what I feel like I’ve done, and I have the  warm fuzzy glow to prove it.

I’m not yet quite ready to have a Fairphone tattoo done, though.