Posts Tagged ‘small farmer tea’


Photo by Kai Horstmann

Photo by Kai Horstmann

Dear Tea Drinkers,

I am absolutely convinced that if you knew the deplorable conditions in which the vast majority of tea workers lived; the endless studies documenting the human rights and labor rights violations rampant on tea gardens, tea estates, tea plantations (call them what you will), the child slavery, indentured slavery, human trafficking that goes on unpunished – I am absolutely convinced that you WOULD STOP BUYING TEA from most of the brands that you think of as the “established”, “reputable”, and “prestigious” companies stocked on your grocery stores’ shelves.

I am absolutely convinced that if you knew all this AND knew of the enormous profits and industry control of the entire tea supply chain, you would think twice about who your dollars are supporting.

Sadly, the vast majority of Fair Trade Teas on the market do not dramatically improve worker conditions, empower workers, nor most importantly, change either the overall situation or the balance of power for those doing the hardest work cultivating, picking, and processing tea.

The article below is just one more in an endless, seemingly ignored, expose of the abuses of the “conventional” tea industry.

It is hard not to feel tremendous pride, and a deep commitment to the work we at Equal Exchange, and more importantly, our small farmer tea partners in India, South Africa, and Sri Lanka are doing – against the current – to build small farmer supply chains and an informed, engaged consumer citizenry to transform the way in which we enjoy our morning or afternoon tea break.

Please help us support an alternative tea supply chain so that we can all wake up in the morning knowing that the tea we so enjoy is also supporting the dignity of those in the tea industry, and providing improved conditions, livelihoods, and communities of those far away from us geographically, but so connected to us in every other way.

Indian tea workers, a life without dignity

On the occasion of International Labor Day, the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition (GNRTFN) releases a report on the dire working and living conditions that tea plantations workers face in Assam and West Bengal, two tea producing regions in India.

Based on a GNRTFN fact finding mission (FFM), A Life without dignity – the price of your cup of tea highlights the human rights violations and abuses that India’s tea plantation workers have endured for generations, in particular of their right to adequate food and nutrition (RTFN) and related rights. The report also reflects years of work by two of its members, the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) and the Right to Food Campaign in India.

The findings show that tea workers are not receiving adequate living wages, and their working conditions are harsh and physically arduous. Without protective equipment, those who spray tea bushes are regularly exposed to pesticides. Female tea pluckers –around half of the work force – suffer from violations of their human rights. As a general rule, women plantation workers are subjected to violations of their maternity protection rights and benefits and face rampant discrimination at work; the wages they receive are less than those of men; and they have few, if any, promotional opportunities. These violations at the workplace are compounded by the pervasive human rights violations they face vis-a-vis their living conditions.

While the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) entrusts the tea plantation owners with the responsibility to provide tea workers and their families with basic needs, including drinking water, health care, education and housing, this could not be further from reality. Workers’ houses are old without any water supply or sanitation facilities and their children do not receive proper education. Workers’ families, who want their children not to live under the same conditions of life as current and previous generations, toil to provide a good education. Often, parents face huge barriers at every stage of their child’s growth. Health care and medicine are not within easy reach–physically or financially– nor are other basic necessities, such as water, sanitation, or electricity.

The lack of security of tenure appears to be at the core of their continued dependency on tea plantations. With workers having no legal right over their house and land, any management staff has the power to evict any worker currently out of work. This has meant that workers, particularly women, continue to work for pittance wages in order to keep a toehold on the only house that they possess, having lost their ties to their actual homeland over the last 200 years. The workers therefore continue to work in a state of bondage, frightened to organize and fight for better working conditions, as protests can mean eviction from their homes.
By enacting the PLA, the Government of India formalized the system that had kept workers completely dependent on tea plantation owners. This dependency becomes most obvious and detrimental when plantations close down – as is the case in West Bengal. Without any savings or a place to go, tea workers are forced to take drastic measures to ensure their survival and with some dying of hunger in extreme cases.

Amongst its key recommendations, the GNRTFN  calls on the State of India to take immediate actions to guarantee all human rights of tea workers, especially, the RTFN, housing, water, sanitation and education, in line with international and national law, ensuring close consultation with the concerned workers. Any decisions in relation to the future of tea gardens, including any structural alternatives, should be taken with the involvement of tea workers throughout the entire process. Understanding the impact of abandoned (closed) plantations on the lives of workers and their families, the Network also urges the State of India to pay urgent attention and adopt the necessary measures.

You can find the report here.


  • The FFM took place in tea plantations in Assam and West Bengal from 27th November 2015 to 4th December 2015. Pre-findings were presented in two press conferences in Kolkota and New Delhi.
  • The Network is an initiative of CSOs and social movements (peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, landless people, consumers, urban people living in poverty, agricultural and food workers, women, youth, and indigenous peoples) that recognize the need to act jointly for the realization of the RTFN.

Read more about Equal Exchange’s efforts to build an alternative tea supply chain here and here.

For more information about the FFM, please contact tang[at]fian.org  and cordova[at]fian.org
For media enquiries about the report, please contact delrey[at]fian.org
Read more about the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition


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“The predominant ownership and management model for tea gardens in Darjeeling is rooted in colonial history. In view of the changing cultural, political, and economic climate, a new framework that revolves around worker involvement, participation, & ownership was conceived. This revolutionary concept is not only critical to the success of [Potong], but is important for the development of the larger Darjeeling tea community.” Prem Tamang, Tea Promoters of India

Fairly Traded Coffee, 1986

When Equal Exchange pioneered Fair Trade coffee in 1986, the founders were told they were crazy:  how could they create a viable business model while simultaneously helping small farmers gain access to the market; pay them an above-market price; educate consumers about the source of their coffee; and connect producers and consumers in relationships based on respect and integrity? 

Two decades later, there is no question that the founders’ idealistic vision has radically transformed the coffee industry. While Fair Trade may not yet be a household term, the concept has entered the mainstream coffee market. Over 400 new Fair Trade coffee roasters have sprung up across the country and a number of larger companies are dedicating a portion of their coffee purchases to Fair Trade; all of which comes from small farmer co-ops. Consumers are increasingly choosing to buy coffee sourced from fair trade co-ops and the producer members of those co-ops are, in general, doing far better than their non-Fair Trade counterparts.

Fairly Traded Tea, 2009

Skip ahead 23 years and let’s take a look at the tea industry. By far, the vast majority of tea found on grocery shelves comes from large-scale plantations. Even 98% of tea that is labeled “Fair Trade” is sourced from plantations, one of the last vestiges of the colonial system. The certifiers claim that there is not enough small farmer tea to create a viable supply chain; that plantation tea is the only way to offer consumers a Fair Trade tea. However, while it is true that in some cases, workers have more participation in certain decisions than do those working on non-fair trade plantations, by only working with large estate tea, the Fair Trade model focuses far too much on supply and not nearly enough on Big Change.

Transformation of the tea industry is both possible and long overdue. Due to the feudal nature of plantations, workers are often trapped in a system of dependency. In many cases, workers receive their housing, schooling and medical care from the estate. This means that if a worker loses his/her job, or if the plantation is abandoned, thousands of workers and their families are left without any form of income or services. In fact, in many regions, economic, political and cultural realities are causing this system, frozen in a bygone era, to crumble on its own. Tea workers, however, can’t afford to wait for slow change and committed fair traders and activists need to take action now to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.

A Different Kind of Tea Model

We think the time for change is now. Our tea partners – in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa – share this conviction. On a recent trip to Darjeeling, India, we visited our partners, Tea Promoters of India (TPI) and saw an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision of a transformed tea industry where the farmers are empowered, making decisions, taking risks, building their own businesses and improving their lives and communities.

Small Farmer Co-operatives

Sanjukta Vikas, a dairy co-operative comprised of 450 small farmers, also exports high quality, organic Fair Trade tea with the technical assistance and training of a local non-governmental organization, and the processing and marketing assistance of TPI. Walking through the community felt like that mythical Shangri-la of the movies. The village was clean and well-maintained, water flowed in abundance; the brightly-painted homes were surrounded by sweet smelling flower gardens, terraced hills, and shaded farms planted with oranges, bananas, onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Colorful Buddhist flags were strung across the trees in front of a handful of houses; the co-operative itself is also home to Christians and Hindus.

We visited farms and spoke with many farmers. The commitment they have made to bio-dynamics, organic farming, and permaculture was clear. We were shown how materials are recycled and reused; nothing is wasted. Another constant was the sense of pride and self-assurance the farmers displayed which contrasted sharply to other places we’ve visited. Owning their land and having options affords farmers a stronger sense of investment and control over their business.

Worker-owned Plantations

The Potong Tea Garden, established over 100 years ago by the British, is the story of a plantation repeatedly abandoned, taken over, mismanaged, and abandoned again, until 2005 when the 350 farmers decided to take control, and with the support of TPI, run the estate themselves. 2500 people depend on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs and educational services.

We met with members of the Potong Welfare Committee and were told about just some of the economic hardships they suffered during these periods of abandonment: schools were closed, malnutrition was rampant, illnesses abounded, and dozens of people died. The committee’s president, Sher Bahadur, said: “It was so very, very bad. There was no food in the house. The plantation system was structured in such a way that we were never taught any other means of livelihood. We were 100% dependent on the tea plantation. So when the plantation was abandoned, what could we do?”

After the government had taken over the plantation and grossly mismanaged it, Potong was auctioned to a Kolkata company in 2005. But the company was unfamiliar with the tea industry and suffered huge losses. So the owners sought out TPI and asked if they would be interested in running the estate. Representatives of TPI approached the workers. They explained the situation and proposed a solution to keep the estate in operation: the workers take over management – and 51% ownership. TPI would purchase 25% of the remaining shares and provide the technical assistance and market support. Like Sanjukta Vikas, the farmers could process their tea at TPI’s facilities.

After 45 days of deliberation, the workers agreed and a Management Team was created comprised of farmers, TPI, and representatives of the Kolkatta business which still owns a minority share. A member of the Welfare Committee told us, “Before, they were the management and we were the workers. Whatever they asked us to do, we had to do. Before, the management was the supreme authority and we were scared of them. Now we discuss things amongst ourselves.”     

President Bahadur agreed, “Now we have a new structure and we can work with dignity and for our own development. We are working for ourselves and no one else. This is our model and if we are successful, then we will have a future.”                         

Nothing Short of Transformation

It wasn’t easy for Equal Exchange’s founders to challenge an entire coffee industry, especially one so rooted in economic, political, and historic power. But through the co-operative’s success,  the organization has demonstrated that consumers are a “sleeping giant”: once “awakened” and shown a path grounded in fairness, respect, and mutual dignity, people will act on their values, aim high, and purchase ethically. Many will go beyond consumption and also advocate for necessary systemic changes.

We believe there is a path toward a small farmer tea model like the ones we saw at Sanjukta Vikas and the Potong Tea Garden:  one which paves the way for small farmers to have greater access to the market, affording them more economic power, stronger control, better lives, and healthier communities. There are already producer groups and alternative trade organizations working toward this vision. We are convinced that U.S. consumers, armed with information and knowledge, and given a real choice, will walk alongside us as we turn our vision into reality.  There is no reason to accept anything less.

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Sarath Ranaweera, Director of Biofoods, a Fair Trade, Organic Tea and Spice organization working with small farmers in Sri Lanka sent holiday greetings to Equal Exchange this morning. He included a bit of exciting news which I’d like to share with you.

Three years ago, I visited Sri Lanka with another colleague at Equal Exchange to learn more about the work of our tea partners, Biofoods. They are the only organization in Sri Lanka that works with small farmers. (There is other Fair Trade tea being produced in Sri Lanka but none of it comes from small holders.) Biofoods’ mission is to provide market access to small farmers so that they can stay on the land, provide strong livelihoods for their families, and maintain healthy and vibrant communities.

We were deeply impressed with their commitment to small farmer organizations as a development model and to organic (and biodynamic) production as a way to protect the earth’s fragile and diminishing resources. To fulfill its social, economic and environmental mission through the export of high quality, organic, Fair Trade tea and spices, Biofoods has developed state of the art technology in processing and packaging. The staff applies this expertise, along with technical assistance and market access to SOFA (the Association of Organic Small Farmers) which includes 750 farmers growing a variety of foods for local consumption, as well as tea and spices for export.

In his note to us, Sarath included the following update of their progress:

“We are happy to inform you that our sister company, Eco Foods successfully opened the organic shop for locals in Kandy City Centre, the largest mall in Sri Lanka. This was one of the key issues in our concept: that we provide locals with healthy food while exporting the excess. Finally, we were lucky to be inside one of prime places and we have section for fair trade in which non-food produce from small producers is also sold.

This will be a kind of Historical mile stone in our long journey in the organic World during the last 16 years. There was a very distinguished gathering including top Civil servants, senior university academics, Artists, lawyers, representatives from Environmentally-friendly movements, organic farmer organizations and well wishers. Others must now follow our sustainable model of this small organic farmer project in which practical application of organic and fair trade on the ground will improve the socio economic standards of marginalized farmers which we are showing to be possible. Photos are attached. 

Thank you for all your encouragements and appreciations.”


We congratulate them in this latest milestone and wish them even greater success!

To learn more about Biofoods, SOFA and our line of Sri Lankan teas, click here.

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We recently returned from a trip to Darjeeling where we were visiting our partners, Tea Promotors of India.  TPI is a progressive Indian company with a deep committment to transform the tea industry (still heavily seeped in its colonial legacy) into an empowerment model for small farmers. 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a lot about our trip and this vision.  How viable is a small farmer tea model in India and elsewhere?  How likely is it that U.S. consumers will care about supporting a vision of small farmer tea?  If we believe that there is a difference between working long days on someone else’s plantation and working co-operatively with other small farmers to own, manage, and run your own tea business, what can we do to support this vision?

The following photos were taken at the Singell Tea Garden in Darjeeling, India.  Most of the photos are of tea pluckers.  Some of them are of visitors; excited to see, listen, learn, and work alongside our partners.  We hope this is just the beginning of a new phase where consumers in the U.S. think more deeply about where their tea comes from, who is growing it, and under what conditions.

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Well folks,

We’ve just completed a very fun and information-packed 10-day visit to India where four of us from Equal Exchange had the opportunity to visit our partners, Tea Promoters of India (TPI). We spent a week visiting a handful of the tea gardens, small farmer co-operatives and factories in Darjeeling and Dooars that are growing and processing our line of teas from this exquisitely beautiful region.

I’m still away on vacation, so the full story – and best photos and short videos – are yet to come. For now, I just wanted to share a few random photos to give you an idea of some of our activities.

We arrived at Putharjhora Tea Gardens in Dooars after our long flight to Delhi and then another to Bagdroga (West Bengal). Our first meeting was held late in the evening and began with a ceremony in which we were officially greeted with rice, scarves, and garlands. We then watched a variety of dance performances… soon we will have short video clips for you all to see as well.

The following morning we walked the gardens and got a full tour and explanation of their impressive organic and bio-dynamic practices which include planting with the moon’s cycles, using a wide variety of herbs (and other inputs) to control for pests and improve soil nutrition. Putharjhora is the only organic, Fair Trade tea garden in Dooars and is also certified bio-dynamic. (more on this later)

Above, Jodi Anderson, Sales Manager, Rink Dickinson, Co-Director, and Danielle LaFond, Quality Control Technician don masks, hair nets, and other protective gear to tour the tea processing factory at Putharjhora Tea Gardens. This is where the tea leaves are dried, rolled, sorted, and packed.

A tea worker is removing the stalks and stems from the tea leaves.

Danielle tries her hand at sorting.

Jodi Anderson and Rink Dickinson get out of the car and walk the last few kilometers into the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling, the foothills of the Himalayas. This is the first tea garden where ownership was turned over to the workers. In a meeting with the worker-owners, we were told the long history of events leading to the decision of the workers to buy the garden and take over the management. An incredible story which we will tell soon.

We ended our trip in Calcutta, where TPI’s offices are located. Above, Smeeta Ray did a tea tasting with us and Danielle, Rink and Jodi chose the finest quality and best tasting teas to purchase in our next shipment. It was probably no coincidence that all of the teas they chose came from TPI’s small farmer projects.

Following our meeting in Potong, we took a group photo and then were invited to someone’s house for one of the most delicious meals we had on the trip… and there were many, many of those!

Most importantly, we learned an incredible amount about the tea we purchase, the cutting-edge company we are working with and the people who are working incredibly hard to produce this tea. TPI is working with a number of tea gardens and they are on the forefront of the movement to organize small farmers into co-operatives and to organize former plantation workers into co-operatively run enterprises. We were able to see a wide range of these projects and look forward to sharing more in the weeks to come!

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