Are you whole-leaf or dust?

tea grades

On my last visit to India I was given two packets of tea. One kilo bag was sewn into a linen sleeve and contained full bodied, delicately flavoured whole-leaf tea. The moist used leaves swell until they fill almost half the tea-pot, they are thick, black and rich enough to nourish the driest rose bed.

The other packet – somewhat less than a kilo – was wrapped in pages from a Tamil language newspaper. Inside, the open mouth of the plastic bag was carefully taped shut, the partly used tea it contains is a coarse, dark brown powder. Its flavour is fuller and more distinctive than anything you would get from a tea bag, but there is a rough edge to it that the whole leaf tea in the linen sleeve does not have. This tea was made to be boiled with milk and sugar to make strong, earthy chai.

The two teas represent the extremes of the grading process that green leaves go through once they are emptied into the factory’s drying trays.

The whole-leaf tea was given to me by the family of a former tea estate manager who continues to receive it as an annual retirement gift from the company. They generously “re-gifted” it to me knowing that I have a strong feeling for the stuff and for the place it grew.

The powdered tea – or “dust” – was given to me by an employee on the same tea plantation. His family used to work for mine when we lived there. When I visited in September, I had planned to stock up with local tea from the sales outlet on the ground floor of the company headquarters. But when I arrived it was surrounded by police, and soon afterwards by thousands of women tea pluckers protesting at their low wages, poor housing and healthcare and the failure of their trade unions, politicians or managers to stand up for them.

The plantation employee and his wife had invited me to breakfast on the second day of the strike and we were discussing its underlying causes and the likelihood of its success, when I selfishly asked whether they thought there was any way of getting hold of some tea now that the shop was closed (in fact the protestors had made all the shopkeepers and hoteliers close for the duration of the strike).

The next day I was presented with the carefully re-wrapped packet of tea, clearly from their own kitchen shelf. The company sells tea, along with other basic provisions, at a discount to employees.

I invited this old friend and his family to have tea with me at The Club which had been the social hub of our community when I was a child and where I was now staying. But when they arrived, all dressed up and bearing gifts, the club management would not let the family onto the premises. “Because… well, you know why” smirked the manager. So we went out and ate together at a restaurant in town.

The club manager’s position in this hierarchy would be somewhere below tea estate manager but above the plantation employee, who himself is positioned above the tea pluckers.

Later the manager explained that although the striking tea pluckers were technically shareholders in the company which has a participatory management system in place “thinking power is not there” to enable them to truly benefit from it. They are just “lazy” and yes, their work is hard and dangerous, but it is their “duty” to do it and they “should be grateful” for what they get.

But not everywhere in India maintains such strict admission rules as The Club. My whole-leaf tea benefactor told me of her horror when, sitting in an elegant bar in Cochin, a common fisherman in a dhoti had casually walked in and bought himself a drink at the same bar. “Why do you allow these people in?” she asked the barman with genuine pain and distress. “That is the law now,” he said.

And that is really what lies at the heart of the plight of workers on India’s tea plantations today. The strict colonial hierarchy brought in by the British at the end of the 19th century suited the Indian caste and economic class system like a glove. And while Indian law is (very slowly) becoming more egalitarian, plantations are a state-within-a-state still trapped in a sociological time-warp.

The striking women workers, whether they know it or not, are rebelling not only against their low wages and poor living and working conditions, but against a mind-set – embedded for generations – that grades human beings like tea itself, equating one group with “whole-leaf” and another with “dust”.

And as long as those of us who buy Indian tea continue to turn a blind eye to that mind-set and the impact it has on the lives of the workers, we contribute towards perpetuating it.

The views in this blog are the personal views of Sabita Banerji and do not reflect the views or policies of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

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