Fairtrade Tea in India

The recent blog, titled “Can there be a socially responsibly tea” by Peter Rosenblum and Ashwini Sukhtankar poses the question of whether or not it is possible to produce ‘ethical tea’.  The authors question, among other things, the slow pace of change in the Indian tea industry, and the ability of Fairtrade’s efforts to thus far make significant impact on the lives of tea workers on Indian plantations.

While acknowledging that tea in India is a challenging industry in which to bring about change, we regret that the blog fails to include the specific work Fairtrade has been doing to address issues involving tea workers.  Fairtrade, after 25 years’ experience is the first to acknowledge there are no ‘easy solutions’.  In the words of Fairtrade International Chief Executive, Harriet Lamb, “This is a long difficult journey.  Every day we are dealing with the realities of centuries of oppression, none of which will be solved overnight. Finding the right balance between facilitating trade, development and compliance is a sometimes difficult and arduous task that requires constant improvement and fine tuning.”

The article itself is a testament to the challenges faced by Fairtrade and other stakeholders, illustrating the deep interconnected political and social roots underpinning the unacceptable situation of Indian tea workers.  Fairtrade has indeed learned that our model on its own is not sufficient to tackle the endemic nature of the problem. Only 1 – 2% of global tea is sold on Fairtrade terms, with most Fairtrade tea estates selling less than 10% of their total sales as Fairtrade, a significant limiting factor in promoting change.  Despite this, more recent impact studies do show a range of tangible, yet small number of benefits accruing to tea workers, their families and communities. However they also continue to highlight the problems referred to by the article – particularly the lack of worker empowerment.  Fairtrade is tackling these on a number of fronts.

Fairtrade Hired Labour Strategy and New Hired Labour Standard

Learning from impact studies and consultations with workers across the globe, including on Indian tea plantations, have fed into the 2012 Hired Labour Strategy, followed by the recently approved new Hired Labour Standard.  The new Standard has stronger rules regarding Freedom of Association, requires companies to make progress towards a Living Wage, and stipulates that workers now have autonomy, combined with more flexibility, in how to allocate the Fairtrade Premium. The Standard revision has also introduced a quality requirement for on-site housing for workers, particularly important in the absence of enforcement of government set norms in India. For further information, see http://www.fairtrade.net/single-view+M5ec4971ca57.html

Supporting workers themselves to negotiate better terms and conditions is core to the Fairtrade model, and the new Standard will support us to do more and better.  However we recognise that in parallel the only way to create real substantive change for tea workers is for the whole tea sector to take serious action together to tackle this problem – with plantations, trade unions, Government of India, NGOs, brands and retailers.  That is why Fairtrade is already participating in trying to drive change across the industry.

Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration across the Tea Sector

Last year we issued a report with Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership on ‘Understanding Wage Issues in the Tea Industry’. http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/oxfam_etp_understanding_wage_issues_in_the_tea_industry.pdf.  We are working collaboratively with other certifiers, leading tea companies and industry bodies, NGOs, trade unions, civil society and governments to advocate for improved wages for workers on tea estates. This joint collaboration could facilitate a new approach to setting tea industry wage benchmarks and the promotion of wage bargaining, so that better wages become a commitment of everyone along the supply chain.  Consumers will also need to play their part.  Simply, tea is too cheap.  Prices have improved in recent years, but compared to a can of coke or jar of coffee, the price of an individual tea bag is very low.

Scaling up on work on unacceptable human rights practices

Fairtrade is confronted with the human cost of inequitable supply chains and unequal power relations across all its operations.  Fairtrade takes a strong stand against forced labour, including human trafficking.  In India, we have, with partners, obtained general knowledge on the patterns of human trafficking flows from the north of India to the rest of the sub-continent and beyond.   We have conducted targeting trainings with producers in South, Central and North India, and with our staff to address these issues.

As Fairtrade International we see an increasing leading role for producer organisations as change agents in the fight against unacceptable social practices.  Over the years, we have experienced diverse responses in producer’s willingness to lead on this issue.  We have seen producers take solid leadership in the fight against child labour in some places, whilst in others denial of the existence of unacceptable practices remains an obstacle to progress.     For more information on this work, see our recently published article “Fairtrade Seeks to Unlock the Power of Local Leadership as an Important Tool in Eliminating Child Labour”,  http://www.fairtrade.net/single-view+M5f7d96e7d81.html.

Commitment to Learning

The study referred to in the blog was commissioned by Fairtrade International to understand more about the opportunities and limitations for Fairtrade to effect change on workers lives in the particularly challenging political economy of the Indian tea sector.   We took very seriously the findings of the research team, and they were followed up as part of our internal learning and commitment to continually strengthening the Fairtrade system.   Whilst most Fairtrade impact studies are commissioned with external academic partners with a view to full publication, as part of our overall commitment to transparency, there are also occasions when we believe it is appropriate to engage with independent researchers also for internal learning purposes.

Rigorous Audit Process

While, as referred to earlier, one of Fairtrade’s key learnings through research and through consultations with worker themselves, has been that Standards and auditing alone are not always sufficient to bring about the level of impact that Fairtrade seeks, they remain a fundamental foundation for worker protection and empowerment.  Controlling compliance with the Fairtrade Standards is conducted by FLO-CERT, an independent, company which is ISO-65 accredited for Fairtrade certification. ISO 65 is the leading internationally recognized quality norm for bodies operating a product certification system.

FLO-CERT auditors are experts in their field. They are familiar with the local and sector-specific realities they are facing on-site. They are also conscious of the elements in the Fairtrade Standards that carry the highest risk for non-conformities. Auditors receive regular training on identification and response required to mitigate those risks. There are strict and transparent allegation procedures in place. Any non-conformity in the area of a core Fairtrade Principle, such as those embedded in the core ILO Conventions, can lead to suspension and ultimately decertification.

In conclusion, Fairtrade welcomes the increasingly spotlight that these researchers together with many stakeholders are placing on the inequity in the India tea sector.  We believe the vision of ‘socially responsible tea’ is ultimately achievable, though we do not underestimate the task at hand.  However, where we differ from the writers is in our commitment that Fairtrade must play a vital role, employing our twenty five years of experience of negotiating the delicate terrain of power and interests against varying backgrounds of political, cultural and economic realities to deliver sustainable change to people’s lives.

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