Exposés on radio and in print based on television coverage by the BBC have cast a harsh light on the plight of tea workers in Assam.
Coverage has been sensational without exaggerating conditions. The situation there is deteriorating due to a reduced harvest and massive flooding with growing instances of malnutrition and abuse.
“The Bitter Story Behind the UK’s National Drink” aired four times this month in the UK with graphic photos of impoverished workers, unsanitary living conditions and instances of workers spraying pesticides without adequate protection.
Reporters also documented instances of child labor and clear violations of certification rules. Reporters visited Ethical Tea Partnership and Rainforest Alliance certified plantations.
“Homes on the tea estates were in terrible disrepair, with leaking roofs and damp and cracked walls. Many toilets were blocked or broken,” according to the BBC. The gardens visited, including McLeod Russel’s Assam estates, and the Assam Company supply Lipton, Tetley, Twinings, Yorkshire, Fortnum and Mason and PG Tips. Harrods pulled the tea from one of the troubled gardens from its shelves.
McLeod operates 51 gardens in Assam. The company said crop losses averaged 6% due to flooding but reached as high as 32% on some estates.
Sandip Ghosh, head of the Indian Tea Association’s Assam branch, told the BBC that conditions were not acceptable. “Let me be clear, cesspools and open defecation are not acceptable to me or the association. These issues need to be addressed,” he said.
International media amplified the article. TIME published a report last week based on the BBC coverage. So did newspaper and television stations in New Zealand and Australia.
Plantation owners, corporate buyers and NGOs all acknowledged problems previously documented in detail by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute which last January published a lengthy study on conditions. The report documented widespread “inhumane” and “abusive” conditions on 17 Assam gardens.
BBC found local hospitals report a high incidence of malnutrition, many instances of pesticide exposure and tuberculosis. All those interviewed were familiar with housing and working conditions. Each said progress is incremental and will likely to take years to resolve.
World Tea News readers should study this transcript prior to sourcing Indian tea.