Assam’s largest tea estates have been cited in disturbing reports of labor abuse and child trafficking the past few years, tarnishing the reputation and marketability of one of the world’s best-known teas.
Four years ago, the World Bank, university researchers, and NGOs investigating mistreatment led to critical and widespread media coverage. The resulting consumer ire led multi-national tea companies to source the assamica varietal elsewhere.
In response a small-scale collaborative effort by government, NGOs (non-government organizations) and tea suppliers was established to restore the reputation of estate grown tea.
Last week Britain’s largest tea suppliers, working with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), announced they are expanding efforts to address Assam’s deep-seated troubles through the Women, Children and Families in Assam Commitment (WCFA). Britain’s six top brands supply 70 percent of the country’s tea, generating $660 million annually.
Unacceptable conditions linger. In May, an undercover investigation by the development charity Traidcraft Exchange once again revealed, “appalling living conditions” and launched the “Who picked my tea?” public awareness campaign.
In announcing the initiative, organizers said this is a new “commitment signed by ETP’s funding partners IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Starbucks Corporation, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Tata Global Beverages, Tata Trusts, Taylor’s of Harrogate, Tesco, Typhoo and the Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft (OTG).” Twinings has been working with UNICEF since 2010. Unilever which has been involved with a separate gender-focused program also signed on.”
“To ensure the commitment includes a wide range of key stakeholders who are involved in the tea supply chain, it has also been signed by the ITA, the oldest tea association in India who represent 60 percent of tea production for Indian tea producers,” according to the release. Initially 200 tea gardens will receive assistance. There are approximately 800 large estates in Assam.
The expanded effort builds on the success by significantly extending work in Assam to increase its scale and reach across a quarter of all tea gardens in Assam. The project aims to reach more than 250,000 people in tea communities in Assam and will help to tackle some of the most challenging issues affecting women and children, including healthcare, child development and nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection.
“Most importantly it will continue to improve the safety and lives of women and children living in Assam’s tea communities,” reads the release.
This is an opportunity “to galvanize the wider sector to sign up and take action to help accelerate meaningful change across the region,” reads the release. Organizers said the initial program, begun in 2014 and involving 104 tea gardens, has:
- Improved the safety of more than 35,000 girls across Assam by equipping them with essential skills to reduce the risk of violence, abuse and exploitation
- Trained 1,000 front-line staff including local police and social workers across Assam on child protection issues to build trust between tea communities and local agencies and keep them safe
- Reached more than 30,000 community members across tea communities in Assam to protect children against trafficking and unsafe migration.
In November 2016 Tetley’s (Tata Tea), Twinings, Lipton and PG Tips (Unilever) and Yorkshire Tea announced they would not source tea from gardens known to abuse women and children and that they would work to improve conditions on the estates they buy from in India.
To help build trust, Taylor’s of Harrogate published details online of its tea suppliers in a move towards greater transparency in the supply chain. Traidcraft has called on all the big UK brands to list the estates where their tea is grown. The big British brands know this but aren’t doing enough to challenge it,” according to Traidcraft.
“Publishing their list of suppliers would mean that consumers – and more importantly women workers in Assam – could hold tea estates to account,” said Fiona Gooch senior policy adviser for Traidcraft Exchange.
The Brahmaputra River basin, which drains the Assam region, holds the largest concentration of tea in the world. Assam last year produced 675 million kilograms of the 1,322 mkg of tea grown in Inida. Almost 40 percent of Assam’s tea is now grown on small plots of land.