Tea is the world’s most popular drink. The global tea is the world’s most popular drink. The global tea industry provides jobs and livelihoods, but also has an ugly history of poor working conditions, damaging biodiversity and overusing pesticides. This is a summary of the main ...

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  • Tea is the worlds most popular drink. The global tea industry provides jobs and livelihoods, but also has an ugly history of poor working conditions, damaging biodiversity and overusing pesticides. This is a summary of the main impacts and how tea production could be made better.

    Loss of wildlife and habitats In order to meet the worlds demand for tea, huge expanses of farmland and forest are converted to growing only tea. For example, in 2011 large swathes of East African rainforest were sold to create a tea estate, despite opposition from the President and national environmental authorities[1]. These monoculture plantations drastically decrease biodiversity through loss of plants and animals. Habitat loss associated with tea farming has decreased numbers of the Lion Tailed Macaque in India, and led to dwindling numbers of the Horton Plains Slender Loris in Sri Lanka. Both of these are on the International Union for Conservation of Natures Red List of endangered species.[1] And monocultures provide the perfect environment for pests, resulting in an increased use of toxic pesticides. Pesticides have a lasting effect upon soil quality[2], as well as devastating impacts on local wildlife. An example of this was the 2011 death of four elephants in Indias Kaziranga National Park after eating pesticide-coated grass from a tea plantation[1], which prompted forestry officials to call for a pesticide ban around the park[3]. Exhausted land Intensive farming of tea also reduces the productivity of the soil, as the land is rarely given a chance to rest and replenish, leading to nutrient-sparse soils that are easily degraded and washed or blown away. As well as reducing the productivity of the tea sector and driving it to clear forests for new plantations, soil washed from fields into surrounding habitats like wetlands and rivers can also cloud the water and drive away wildlife.

    Switching to organic tea farming would protect habitats and wildlife, safeguard the productivity of the land, and reduce the need for pesticides. In Sri Lanka, for example, some farmers are being trained in how to grow tea in forest gardens that maintain local ecosystems[4]. Some brands are already selling tea certified rainforest-free, working with suppliers to ensure they use environmentally-friendly production methods. Major tea buyers could use their influence to support tea estates and small-scale farmers to help them improve their processes. A Make It Better law would see them taking responsibility for whats happening at the far end of their supply chains and help end problems like rainforest destruction and elephant deaths. Energy-intensive tea processing The process by which tea is dried and processed requires a lot of energy. UNEP calculates that it takes 8kWh of energy to process one kilogram of finished tea, compared with 6.3 kWh for the same amount of

  • processed steel[5]. This high energy use can have damaging environmental impacts, which vary between countries. In India for example, the use of firewood in the drying process the most energy-intensive part has led to severe deforestation. In parts of East Africa, where power is expensive and unreliable, many tea factories have had to install polluting standby diesel generators to meet their needs.

    Supporting tea producers to switch to renewable energy could help. Tea estates hilly locations often in areas with high annual rainfall and all-season river flows can make them suitable sites for hydropower projects, if achieved without negative impact on local ecosystems and water supplies. Forum for the Future is looking at how the future of the tea industry can be more sustainable, which means addressing the reduction of overall energy use alongside factors from mechanisation to climate change[6]. A Make It Better law that required tea brands to report on energy used in the production of their tea would help them identify inefficiencies and move towards improvements.

    Low wages and poor job security In tea-growing countries around the worlds, wages on tea plantations are often well below a living wage and do not provide enough income to feed workers and their families adequately[7]. Consequently, child malnutrition is common on tea estates. In India, for example, medical studies found up to 60% of children in plantations were undernourished[7]. Most workers on tea plantations have very little job security, work long hours and dont have access to effective trade unions[8]. An Ecologist investigation found that in recent years labour unions have been established on plantations to campaign for fair pay and working conditions, but industrial action is frequently met with brutal suppression by police and plantation owners. For example, on an Assam estate owned by Tetleys parent company, Tata Group, protests in 2010 about the death of a worker who collapsed while spraying pesticides were quelled by police, leaving two protesters dead and 15 injured[1]. Reports by some Tata tea workers in India over human rights abuses continue[9]. Exploitative working conditions and health risks Picking and processing tea leaves is physically demanding work. Workers often suffer from long term back pain and fractures as well as respiratory illnesses and skin problems from working with pesticides without appropriate protective equipment [2]. On many plantations the workforce is predominantly female[10], and Fairtrade research has found that sexual harassment and discrimination is common[8]. On African plantations in particular this may take the form of supervisors asking for sexual favours and punishing workers if they refuse[2]. Many plantation communities live in miserable conditions, with little access to drinking water, sanitation, electricity and medical treatment[2]. Child labour Reports of child labour on tea plantations are widespread. One report stated that in 2006 over 40,000 Ugandan children worked picking tea[1], another that in Indonesia children aged 13-15 commonly work on plantations[2]. A 2002 Unicef report calculated that over 30% of Kenyan tea workers were under 15[2].

  • Little benefit to local economy Most of the profits from tea production, processing and sale do not return to the countries where the tea is grown. The most profitable part of the tea trade is the blending, packaging and marketing which tends to be located in the countries where the tea is consumed. Although the price paid for tea in tea consuming countries is increasing, the prices paid to plantations and tea producing small holders has fallen since 1998[11]. Consequently, the majority of profits remains in the consumption countries rather than bolstering the local economies of the tea workers[8].

    Organisations like Action Aid, Fairtrade and War on Want have long been campaigning for better conditions for workers. That would see small farmers who grow tea being paid a fair price and plantation workers allowed rights to form unions, with their human rights respected in the workplace, from safe conditions to job security and living wages. Fairtrade certified tea provides confidence in a fair deal for the people who made your tea. But this approach needs much more support from brands and retailers. Despite progress, Fairtrade tea still represents only one in ten cups of tea drunk in the UK. Greater corporate accountability for what happens at the end of supply chains is seen as vital to drive large-scale improvements. War on Want calls on British supermarkets to ensure fair treatment for workers in far-off plantations, and wants the UK government to regulate UK companies and adopt laws enabling overseas workers to seek justice here when they suffer from exploitative buying practices[7]. ActionAid would like to see company directors obliged to exercise a duty of care for the social and environmental impacts of their companies activities and investments. Such duties, combined with an effective implementation of labour and market laws in tea-growing countries like India, would ensure multinational companies operating in the Indian tea market would be required by law to take adequate steps towards safeguarding the livelihoods of Indian tea workers and growers[11]. A Make It Better law that required tea brands to report on the impacts of how they make our tea would see them taking responsibility for the people labouring at the far end of their supply chains and help problems be identified and prevented.

    [1] Whats really in your cuppa?: A special investigation into the hidden costs of tea, milk and sugar, The Ecologist (2011): http://bit.ly/gBibXA [2] Sustainability issues in the tea sector: A comparative analysis of six leading producing countries, SOMO (2008): http://bit.ly/19Jal5a [3] Pesticide ban call for around India's Kaziranga park, bbc.co.uk/news (2011): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12167318 [4] International Analog Forestry Network: http://bit.ly/1h5dG2o [5] The power of a cup of tea: Greening the tea industry in East Africa, UNEP: http://bit.ly/cdZQBG [6] 19 factors driving the future of the tea industry, Forum for the Future (2013): http://www.forumforthefuture.org/blog/19-factors-driving-future-tea-industry [7] A bitter cup: The exploitation of tea workers in India and Kenya supplying British supermarkets, War on Want (2010): http://bit.ly/1b9jtmI [8] Stirring up the tea trade: Can we build a better future for tea producers?, Fairtrade Foundation (2010): http://bit.ly/bgnmJE [9] Press Release: Tea Plantation Workers Call on Tata and Tetley to Stop Human Rights Abuses, Accountability Counsel (2013): http://www.accountabilitycounsel.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Tata-Tetley-press-release.pdf [10] Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry, Oxfam and Ethical Tea Partnership (2013): http://bit.ly/18vQeZU [11] Tea break: A crisis brewing in India, Action Aid (2005): http://bit.ly/15W5Vdw



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