How is coronavirus affecting your precious cuppa?

The minute there was a whiff of shortage in the air – when the then still unfamiliar word “lockdown” was first being whispered – it triggered in the British a throwback, kneejerk reaction to post-WWII rationing times… The population made a beeline for the supermarkets to stock up against the coming Apocalypse.

Social media images of empty shelves receding into the distance instantly revealed what Brits value most; toilet paper, flour, tinned tomatoes, pasta and hand sanitizer. And they also bought 55% more tea than the same time last year. Tea bags were one of the essential items included in government food parcels for “extremely medically vulnerable people.”

Source: MyLondon:

But at the end of March, Indian tea estates were forced to shut down in the country’s own coronavirus lockdown, tea factories and auction houses fell silent, transport rumbled to a stop, buyers stopped coming to estates, India’s other big customers – like Iran and China – cancelled their orders, millions of kilos of tea piled up in ports…and the price of Indian tea plummeted by 40%.

Tea pluckers are paid only for the days they come to work, and based on how much tea they pluck. No plucking usually means no pay. The Indian Government said that (despite tea estate owners’ loss of income) workers must be paid… permanent workers, that is. The army of temporary workers,  a growing proportion of India’s tea workforce, had no such protection. In practice, many of the permanent workers missed out on pay too despite the Government ruling.

The more responsible tea estate owners sanitised banknotes (no on-line banking in the remote hills were tea is generally grown) and delivered them door-to-door to prevent possible infection. Others donated free rations to temporary workers who would otherwise have gone hungry.

Meanwhile, workers and managers alike were forced to sit back and watch the fresh young leaves of their most valuable ‘first flush,’ crop – the “Champagne of tea” – grow, darken and toughen… and finally be lost altogether.

Source: Nuxalbari Tea estate, W Bengal.

A heart-breaking choice now had to be made. To save their businesses – and thousands of jobs – some  tea plantation owners begged the government to let them resume work before they lost the second flush too – the one that grows in after the first flush is harvested. But to save tea workers from the risk of infection with this ruthless virus, other owners – alongside trade unions and NGOs – expressed alarm at the idea of resuming work on tea estates.

The compromise was to allow them to reopen with only 25% to 50% of the workforce working at any one time, strict social distancing, and with handwashing facilities available and personal protective gear provided.

The historic and widespread challenges of low pay, poor sanitation, overcrowded housing and inadequate healthcare could have meant (and could still mean) the virus spreading like wildfire through tea estates. But thankfully, to date, the infection rate in tea growing areas has been minimal. The insular nature of tea estates, a history of tight security managing who enters and leaves them, and where and when the live-in workforce goes has perhaps made it more feasible to manage the spread of the virus in these lush corners of India.

And yet, the freezing of multiple links of the supply chain means that some companies may never recover from this latest brutal hit. We’ve already seen in places like West Bengal, that when tea estates close down, people starve. After generations of dependence, tea workers often have no alternative  skills, land or income sources to fall back on… and repurposing land to grow food where tea has grown for nearly two centuries requires resources that they simply do not have.

The Indian tea industry was already reeling from multiple economic hits pre-COVID19. As it emerges from this latest crisis, going back to the status quo may not be an option. But perhaps from the jaws of disaster, we can draw some glimmers of hope. An opportunity to do things differently. To “build back better” – as the United Nations, and many others are suggesting.

Because of COVID19, the Assam government has offered to step in and take over the hospitals, clinics and creches that, until now, the already overstretched tea companies were expected to provide. If this actually happens (it hasn’t yet, though free medicines have been provided) keeping it in place could mean that tea companies will in future have more cash available to spend on improving workers’ pay and housing (and workers should get better quality healthcare).

Because of COVID19, Fairtrade International has amended its guidelines so that “producer organizations can spend Fairtrade Premium funds more flexibly to minimize the spread of disease…” Keeping that flexibility in place could mean that tea plantation workers get more of their basic needs met. But for this to have significant impact, Fairtrade certified tea will need to be sold in much greater quantities…. only 10 of Assam’s 800 tea estates are Fairtrade certified, for example.

Because of COVID19 panic buying, Brits demonstrated that tea is one of their most valued shopping list items. Being willing to pay a price that reflects this value – and reflects what it would actually cost if workers got decent pay and benefits, would show our supermarkets that we really do care about this. And our supermarkets sharing that price fairly with producers, could be the shot in the arm that the Indian tea industry needs to boost its immunity to the multiple challenges it is facing. The industry only exists, after all, because of Britain’s love of the drink.


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