India’s Tea Leaves: Not-So-Fair Trade?

“. . . fair trade is not only a bridge that shortens the economic distance between marginalized producers and consumers with disposable income. It is also a meaningful act of human connection, the possibility of sending a grateful smile across the globe, a little sign of hope. In our divisive and finger-pointing world, such a connection among people seems not so much a choice as a necessity for survival.” — Beatrice Hohenegger, “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West” (2006)¬†


I recently finished reading the book “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West.” Published in 2006, the end of the book described some of the atrocious labor conditions that Indian tea pickers experience. (India is one of the biggest growers and exporters of tea in the world) The author was optimistic that, because of the growing popularity of fair trade certification, conditions would increasingly become more humane for these workers. Wondering if this was the case, I decided to research how much things had improved.

Doing a quick news search, the first relevant article that came up was one from 2016, 10 years after the publication of this book. The discouraging title of this BBC article was “Indian Tea Workers’ Conditions Remain Very Poor.” (BBC)¬†According to the article, “Tea workers are trapped in a cycle of dependence that began way back when the first tea estates were planted in India in the 1830s [by colonizers]. . . very little has changed since then.” Indian tea workers on small plantations still face problems with low wages, poor living conditions, and uncontrolled exposure to toxic pesticides.

About 50% of tea from India comes from small plantations. Because fair trade certification can cost over $2000, this can be an economic burden to these plantations, many of which can barely even meet the legal requirements of their own country regarding work conditions. And when these plantations are abandoned, it can create another humanitarian crisis, as people literally starve to death without the work. Many tea workers come from lower castes or persecuted minority groups, so finding new work is very difficult or even impossible for them.

Luckily, changes are slowly but steadily occurring. Organizations like Tea Promoters of India, which is also located in Kolkata, help to establish “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 Farmers Big Change)

Something you can do to help is to research your favorite tea company and see where they are getting their leaves from. If you find that the labor conditions of their tea workers are unacceptable, make your voice heard to the company through email or social media and make them accountable for providing better, more holistic economic support to the communities they get their tea from and who depend on them.