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.

The Anniversary of Unity


A few weeks ago, I had this tattooed on my wrist. It’s the word ‘orumai’ in Tamil.

This may seem like taking blog advertising a little too far. But there’s more to it than that.

One year ago I found myself standing in the middle of an historic moment in Munnar, Kerala.

The moment when thousands of women rose up against their paternalistic tea plantation managers, their male-dominated trade unions and politicians and said ‘you’ve let us down, so now we are going to stand up for ourselves’.

They called themselves Pembila Orumai – Unity of Women.

It was a turning point.

Traditionally the least powerful, most silent, biddable segment of society – lower caste, female, poor – they suddenly became the most powerful. They brought not one but two of Munnar’s major industries to a standstill, tea and tourism.

Downtrodden workers in plantations all over Kerala followed suit. Women working in the fishing industry and the garment industry were inspired by them to speak out.

They forced those in power to question themselves and how they had been treating these women for generations.

It was a life changing moment for me, too.

I left my birthplace, Munnar, at the age of nine with a vague sense that things were not right in the world. Moving to the ubiquitous affluence of England a few years later, this sense got stronger and as a teenager, I started volunteering for charities, and later working for them.

Through the various organisations I worked for I tried to help patients of a hospital in West Bengal, orphans in Zambia, refugees in Serbia, people living with HIV in Malawi…

But something still didn’t feel quite right. Yes, all these people needed help, needed justice. But why me? Beyond the sympathy that I felt for their situation and my outrage about the causes of their poverty, what right did I have to interfere in their lives?

I moved from charities to fair trade and ethical trade, and began to learn about global supply chains and how deeply interlinked we are, whether we know it or not, with those who produce what we use, wear, eat and drink. This felt more relevant.  There was a logic that connected us.

But was even that enough?

“Who is your community” asked Stan Thakaekera – co-founder of Just Change, a unique organisation trading tea grown by tribal people on community principles which I started volunteering for. That’s who you should be connecting with, he said.

And as I stood in the middle of the oncoming river of Pembila Orumai protesters, something infinitely more powerful that logic, sympathy or even outrage overwhelmed me.

It was a sense of community – of unity with these women.

Of course, there is unity in humankind as a whole – the African concept of ‘ubuntu’ which honours that which is human in each of us, regardless of where you are from; the Hindu greeting ‘namaste’ which signifies ‘I bow to the Divine in you’, implying every human contains a spark of the Divine…

But this felt like a more specific unity – if unity can be so subdivided!

I knew at that moment what I must do. I must support these women from my birthplace in their campaign for fair wages and decent working conditions and housing. It seemed to me that my whole career up to this point had prepared me for this, and fate had brought me to this precise spot at this precise moment for a reason.

I am not religious, but a Christian friend recently described this new commitment as my ‘vocation’.

“But it’s much more than a vocation” I protested, thinking of dry vocational guidance sessions at school.

“No, I mean it in the religious sense,” she said; “a calling by God to follow a certain path.”

My road to Damascus was blocked by the bodies of women – bodies that had been broken under the weight of the tea leaves they plucked on the steep hills of Munnar…My road to Damascus was scattered with tea leaves being showered in protest over the immobilised traffic!

One year ago, I set up a daily news update for ‘Munnar’. For the first few months there were daily, then weekly articles about what the Indian media called the ‘stir’.

The women were setting up their own trade union! The established trade unions  were attacking them with stones! The women were standing for election in local government! The leaders had fallen out with each other! One had attempted suicide!

But before long, the only news alerts for Munnar were from Trip Advisor asking for hotel recommendations, photos of misty green hills, sightings of rare butterflies…occasional news items about illegal building projects.

Pembila Orumai seemed like the falling of a vast tree in a forest, crashing with earsplitting force through the branches and, once the echoes had died, silently letting the peace of the countryside flood back in.

But of course, that’s just from the media point of view; the novelty had worn off and like a child that’s tired of a new toy, it has moved on to other shiny things.

Meanwhile, Pembila Orumai has registered as a formal trade union and can therefore now take part in official wage negotiations. They have joined with Aam Admi, an opposition political partly – a party of the people.  And they are continuing their struggle for decent pay and conditions, a less glamorous daily slog, but one with equally profound consequences.

So my tattoo is to remind myself of the unity of humanity.

It is to honour the women who had the courage to stand up in unity and speak out.

And it is to remind myself that a ‘vocation’ is not a passing whim, but a commitment forever.

I will, of course, continue to stand up for anyone whose rights are being abused, but I stand in unity with the women of my birthplace, Munnar.


What price the prestige of British tea and the dignity of its growers?

Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub.
Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub

“The paintings aren’t selling. Change the price tags – put them up by 20%.”

“Put them down by 20%, you mean?”

“No. Up. People will value them more if they cost more.”

My manager at the Commonwealth Institute over 30 years ago was right. The paintings all sold.

In this world of buy-one-get-one-free, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap and all the other enticements to get more for less, it’s a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion that seems to fly in the face of classical economics.

But should we be surprised that by increasing the price of something we’re increasing its value? Or, by the same token, that by lowering the price of something we’re destroying its value?

One of my favourite characters in the late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a seller of pies containing highly dubious meat by-products (“I’ll sell it for less, and that’s cutting me own throat”). If circumstances ever force you to consider buying a pie from C.M.O.T Dibbler – who prophetically predates the horsemeat scandal – you know you have sunk to an unspeakably sordid level, void of hygiene and ethics.

We seem to be getting this same uneasy feeling about our current, mean-spirited BOGOF culture. We’re beginning to ask who pays the real price for these cheapened products? In our heart of hearts we know it’s the labourers in the tea plantations, the garment factories, the shrimp fishing boats…but we don’t know what to do about it.

Of course, it’s true that we all love a bargain – but if we see three similar products at three different prices, if we can afford it, we’ll generally go for the middle one rather than the cheapest. And the early success of the Fairtrade movement proved that people will pay more if they can – and if they believe it will do any good.

Like bananas and milk, tea is often used as a “loss leader” by supermarkets. You can now buy a pack of 40 tea bags for 20p. But by  deliberately making a loss on these British favourites to lead people into their stores, they impoverish the whole value chain, giving no leeway to improve wages, working or living conditions.

So, what if we paid more for our tea? What if we valued it more, took more care over making it? Drank it in beautiful surroundings? What if more of this added value found its way to the women who brave the harsh elements and the sheer hillsides to pluck it?

Someone who hopes to find the answers to these question is Alex Holland. Having helped to save Brixton Market  in 2009, he is now turning his attention to tea.

Alex sees tea as a precious emblem of Britain – “a nation defined by tea drinking”. His mission is to “restore prestige to our national drink by converting Britain to loose-leaf tea” in establishments that will “have the feel of a pub but instead of offering pints of beer, it will serve pots of tea” as well as food and tea-based cocktails such as “oolong martinis”.

It sounds crazy, I know, but the man’s done his homework (using a Human Centred Design process) and this is apparently what the people of Britain want.  Brew, the tea pub will guarantee good prices to small-scale farmers who process their tea crop themselves instead of selling it to a factory. It will provide work experience placements for ex-offenders, and is backed by some pretty successful restaurateurs as well as some 300 crowd-funding investors.

The vast acres of India’s Raj-era tea plantations, rooted in indentured labour and cut-me-own-throat pricing policies, are conjoined with profit-prioritising multi-nationals and “loss-leading” supermarkets. While some are making efforts to improve the lot of plantation workers, there’s probably little hope that this colossal system can ever change enough to allow workers to get a fairer share of the value of the crop they produce.

So perhaps Alex’s refreshingly alternative approach of joining forces with other small, high-value retailers and linking more directly with small tea producers (both of whose numbers are growing) is the answer. By promoting loose, whole-leaf tea instead of dust in tea-bags, perhaps he’ll help overturn the culture that equates workers with dust and managers with whole leaf.

I drink my whole-leaf tea, brought back from my last trip to my birthplace, Munnar, from a beautiful tea pot and matching cup, a gift from a dear friend, looking out over a Clissold Park lake where the ducks, geese and swans are loud with the reproductive joys of spring, below the tapering elegance of St Mary’s church spire. I sip slowly so as not to scare away the wild parakeets feeding on my balcony. The multiple dimensions of this experience are reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Andrew Juniper, in his book on wabi-sabi,  the Japanese art of impermanence, describes the state of mindfulness that this ancient ceremony brings you to, through the perfect balance of people, nature, art, the poetic movements of the tea master… to the consummation of the tea itself.

“Here is the heaven and oblivion sought on earth. The jealous intellect that guards our every thought and action relinquishes its vice-like grip and allows us to taste the reality of the present, the infinite, the wondrous and awesome world we all left in our early childhood.”

You don’t achieve that state by pouring boiling water from an electric kettle onto a paper bag full of tea dust that cost half of 1p, knowing that the people who grew it are undernourished, poisoned by the chemicals they’re spraying and living on food handouts in leaking houses with overflowing cesspits.

You might get it in a Brew tea pub, sipping whole leaf tea grown on a small tea garden whose owner Alex knows by name, brewed to perfection and then transferred to a new pot so it stays the perfect strength to the last cup, served to you by someone being given a second chance in life, in the warm, convivial atmosphere of a traditional British pub.

And that’s priceless.

Thank you, Emma, for the pricing insight; Philippa, for the lovely  tea-pot and cup; and Rory, for the wabi-sabi revelation.


The ‘national living wage’, modern slavery reporting and women workers contesting India’s local elections- genuine change or April Fool’s jokes?

Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License.
Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License. * http://bit.ly/1REU7je

April 1st 2016 will herald a number of new beginnings. Are these serious changes for the better or just April’s Fool jokes?

To test it out, let’s create a hypothetical business; let’s call it Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in London, owned by April and employing four workers on minimum wage. Bill (25) and Bob (24) are the waiters. Mary (19) is an apprentice learning to operate the new-fangled tea urn and Tim (17) clears the tables and washes up.

April’s first new beginning: the UK’s ‘national living wage’ comes into effect

April gathers her staff and announces (through gritted teeth) “Great news. From today, I have to pay the ‘national living wage’ to everyone who’s eligible!” “Hoorah!” cry Bill, Bob, Mary and Tim, “at last we’ll have enough to live on! No more debt, no more second and third jobs!” April hands out slips explaining how much each is going to be paid from now on.

Bill (25)’s grin fades; “But its it’s only going up from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour – that’s not the living wage,” he cries. “The Living Wage Foundation has calculated that we need £9.40 – plus benefits – to live on in London!”

“But I never said I’d be paying you a living wage,” says April, “I said ‘national living wage’ which is a completely different beast. It’s set by the government without any consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.”

Bill’s demand to know why it’s called the national living wage in that case, is drowned out by a cry from Bob (24). “£7.20? But Bill and I do exactly the same job and I’m still only getting £6.70 – it’s a mistake, right?”

“No, dear,” says April, “the ‘national living wage’ only applies to people over 25. Sorry!”

“So I suppose that means l’m still going to be paid only £5.30?” grumbles Tim (17).

“And I’ll keep getting £3.30 even though I’m two years older than Tim because it’s the first year of my apprenticeship?” says Mary (19)  glumly.

“That’s right,” says April, “the rest of you stay on the old minimum wage rates. But as my total salary budget is going up by 50p an hour, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to hand over your tips. After all, if I go out of business, you’ll all be out of a job.”

“It’s an April Fool joke, isn’t it?” says Bill, to hollow laughter all round.


April’s second new beginning: the modern slavery act reporting requirements come into effect

The company that supplies tea to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe has a turnover of over £36 million, so it will now have to “produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains” to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

The company buys its tea from another company that buys from tea auctions in India. That tea may have been grown by one of several different companies that own tea plantations all over India, or it may have been grown by individual or cooperatives of smallholders… there’s no way of telling because it all gets mixed up in the factory and at the auction house.

Amid the labyrinthine complexities of tea company ownership and influence, where suppliers may own brands and workers may appear to own shares yet remain on appallingly poor wages in shockingly bad housing, it has been suggested that companies could be colluding to ensure that auction prices are kept low… so regardless of where the tea may have been grown, the money available to pay workers is severely restricted.

Those workers are the descendants of bonded and indentured labourers who were brought to isolated tea plantations a hundred years ago. Now as then, the plantation owners provide them with housing, education, healthcare, even food rations – so they are heavily dependent on their employers. Some would call this arrangement generous company perks, others would equate it with slavery – or something very closely akin to it.

How will Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’s supplier ever manage to navigate that labyrinthine supply chain to find out what’s going on within it, let alone ” ensure there is no modern slavery” in it? Yet the statement the company provides to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will need to say more than “Sorry, it was just too hard to find out”. It will need to be truly diligent in its due diligence and find out exactly where its tea comes from. It will need to exert every ounce of its influence and insist that those it buys from don’t suppress prices so that workers’ wages and conditions get squeezed. And it will need to find ways of listening to workers themselves to find out if what they are experiencing is akin to modern slavery.

April Fool joke? Possibly. Time will tell.


The third new beginning: Members of a new trade union for women tea workers in Kerala, stand for local elections

Ok, I’m cheating a little on this one. The beginning is not strictly on April 1st. The process began in September last year when women who pluck the tea that ends up in Mary’s Ye Olde Tea Shoppe new-fangled urn, rose up in protest. They were protesting against their bonus being slashed, against the low wages that made them so dependent on that bonus, against their poor housing, dangerous working conditions and the failure of politicians and trade unions to prevent these abuses of their rights as workers. The women who led that uprising were Gomathi Augustin, Indrani Manikandan and Lissy Sunny. They formed Pembilla Orumai – women’s unity – but weren’t initially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as it was not yet formally constituted as a trade union. Without them at the negotiating table, they were awarded a small pay increase on condition that they pluck more tea and a promise to look at a further increase and their other demands after the elections.

Gomathi (38), Indrani (36) and Lissy (47) can now earn Rs 301 a day – about £3 (ie 30p less than apprentice Mary, the lowest paid employee at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, earns in an hour). They are asking for Rs 500 (about £5) a day.

Their members have already won a handful of seats in village level government, and in April they start contesting further seats. If they win, as their sisters won last year, their grass roots movement will have been legitimised, despite the alleged efforts of established trade union supporters to discredit, destabilise and destroy the movement. They will be formally empowered to support their fellow female workers in defending their rights to decent pay and working and living conditions.

April Fool joke? If so, the joke is on those who thought they could exploit women workers and get away with it.

*NB the photo is used purely for illustrative purposes to give a generic picture of an English tea room. The words of the blog are not connected in any way to the establishment featured in the photo.

The Ascent of Munnar’s Women

Womens march
1. “Women’s March on Versailles” by Unknown – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 2. Women workers joining Pengal Otrumai march 7/09/15. Photo: Sabita Banerji

…re-posting for International Women’s Day 2016

A tea plucker once came to her manager and said, “I have now turned into a man, so I should be paid at the higher rate.” A medical examination confirmed that this miraculous transformation had indeed taken place and the higher rate of pay was duly approved. Mesmerised by the spontaneous sex change aspect of this story that I’d heard in my childhood in Munnar, South India, it never occurred to me at the time to question why the male rate of pay should automatically be higher.

A few weeks ago, revisiting Munnar, I did start to question it as I witnessed the birth of a women workers’ “rebellion” against low pay, poor living and working conditions and the male dominated management, politics and trade unions that keep them that way. It has been dubbed ‘Pengal Otrumai’ (Unity of Women). Coincidentally, around the same time, the BBC was screening an episode of its ‘The Ascent of Woman’ documentary series entitled ‘Revolution’, beginning with a reminder that it was the 1789 women’s march on Versaille that triggered the French revolution.

“I want to look at the women who were central to the revolutions that shaped the modern world.” Dr Amanda Foreman starts the programme by saying. “Courageous, visionary figures who fought for change and challenged the status quo.” The courageous figures who are central to Pengal Otrumai are Gomathi Augustine, Lisy Sunny and Indrani Manikandan. When they are not organising thousands of women workers to stage a sit-in outside management offices, or chasing trade union officials and politicians away from their protest or negotiating for better pay and living conditions, they are plucking tea. Contrary to the impression given by the smiling faces of colourfully clad tea pluckers on your pack of 80 tea-bags, tea plucking is an arduous and dangerous job.  Gomathi pointed out to a reporter from Mathrubhumi the steep hills the workers have to climb to pluck the tea “We make the up and down journey carrying 75-100 kg of leaves. On the way we confront elephants sometime. A minor slip from the heights can cost you your life.”

The slashing of their 20% festival bonus to 10% was the last straw. She and her fellow tea pluckers staged an historic 9-day sit-in outside the head office of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation company (KDHP). They drove away men, trade unions and politicians, claiming the stage entirely for themselves. Their bonus demand was finally agreed and a promise made for the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) to discuss a pay rise. The tripartite wage negotiations that should take place every three years were already nine months overdue.

Dr Foreman believes that “a revolution is going to take place around women, their equality, their participation…” But this does not yet appear to be the case in South India, because when the wage negotiations took place on Saturday, the women were excluded as they were not PLC members. Ironically, the trade union officials whom they had explicitly driven away from the protest were, and it was they, not the women who had prompted the negotiations, who took part in it. Hopefully this does not presage for Pengal Otrumai the fate Dr Foreman observed for many women revolutionaries, that “revolutions all too often are about exchanging one power dynamic for another leaving women betrayed and excluded from the new societies they had helped to create.” The PLC negotiations failed to reach a conclusion, so perhaps they will relent on the basis that fresh (female?) blood may break the ancient stalemate between management and trade unions.

KDHP is, understandably, worried that a 100%+ increase in labour costs in a labour intensive industry already struggling with falling prices will destroy it. But without these women there would be no tea industry at all. Again there are parallels with Foreman’s documentary citing the Russian revolutionary conviction that “women’s participation in the workforce makes the country more prosperous.”  The tea industry has relied on the willingness of these women to work for low wages from the very beginning; the British pioneers of the Kerala plantations, unable to persuade local people to work for the wages they were offering, brought in impoverished dalit labourers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Was it just the alleged dexterousness of the women in plucking two leaves and a bud, that made them so ideal for the job, or was it also the fact that women were less likely to object to poverty wages for piteously hard work? But as the events of September 2015 showed, today’s more educated and socially networked generation is very likely to object.

Pengal Otrumai has triggered much soul-searching among politicians. Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy observed that “Successive governments failed to catch the lapses of the management [in observing laws on the humane treatment of workers].” He went on to confess that “All those who had power, are equally responsible for the events that unfolded at Munnar.”  Trade unions too, have been forced to examine their consciences. According to The Hindu, “Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) State president R. Chandrasekharan described the events in Munnar as “a clear failure on the part of the local trade union leadership…” and has sought an urgent meeting of all INTUC-affiliates in the plantation sector to discuss the issue.

Only the KDHP remains unrepentant, in a hurt and bewildered kind of way. In a statement on their Facebook page they plaintively repeat their pride in the worker-shareholder and participatory management system, how well they treat their workers and bemoan the huge financial losses the strike is causing them. Having recently received a glowing response from its workers’ satisfaction survey, and being held up globally as a shining example of ethical management, this must indeed have come as a shock to them. Elsewhere, they cite the fact that Munnar tea workers’ wages are among the highest in the sector. But as Justin Rowlatt’s recent BBC expose on conditions on Assamese tea plantations shows, this is not saying much. Plus, workers’ rights are not about how much better or worse off someone else is, they are about decency and fairness. They continue to believe that the strike was stirred up by outsiders, ‘militant elements’, despite the overwhelming evidence that the women drove away all outsiders – even their own husbands – from the protest.

Dr Foreman concludes her documentary saying “I believe that the future depends on the inclusion of women and to do this we have to break from the past and create a new model for social revolution.”  KDHP made a valiant step in this direction in 2005 when it enabled its workers to become shareholders, but now it needs to ask itself if those changes were truly radical and genuine or if they were just a public relations-friendly mask for the continuation of an old system that effectively keeps workers, particularly women, doing the maximum amount of work for the minimum reward and with the minimum voice?

Now that Munnar’s women have descended their treacherous hillsides and ascended the civil rights platform to make their voices heard, KDHP, and the Indian tea industry in general, would be wise to take heed. It would be wise to treat this as a wake-up call, to make a clean break from its own feudal and colonial past and remould itself in a new business model that ensures a decent living for all its workers, especially the women on whom it relies so heavily.

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.

Those Lush Tea Estates Are Hiding Death and Despair

File picture of Munnar tea estates. Credit: Nikolas Becker, Wikipedia Commons

Even as reports of starvation deaths on defunct tea estates in West Bengal keep coming in, observers are beginning to ask one crucial question—is it the end of the tea industry? And if so, can anything be done to save it and more importantly, save the millions of workers that depend on it for their livelihoods?

Read the full article in thewire.in