Unilever’s announcement that their teas are “slave-free” follows a long campaign to make the world’s largest tea supply chain transparent. Last year, Unilever and Nestlé became the first two food companies to declare their sources of palm oil slave-free. This was a result of conversations around sustainability in palm oil production and to control deforestation.
Traidcraft Exchange is a not-for-profit body that works for fair trade and has campaigned for tea traceability for some time now. In 2018, they launched “Who picked my tea?” a campaign calling the six major UK tea brands – Unilever, Typhoo, Twinings, Yorkshire Tea, Tata (Tetley) and Clipper Teas – to publish the list of estates in Assam (India) that they source tea.
Assam, the largest tea producing region in India suffers in reputation for poor labor policies documented by media and academics in a 2018 investigation by Sheffield University. The investigation revealed that some Indian tea plantations stamped “slavery-free” were abusing and underpaying their workers. Labor conditions at several of the 22 gardens in Assam and Kerala had been certified as acceptable by Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Trustea. Several were also members of the Ethical Tea Partnership a not-for-profit membership organization of tea producers and tea companies to improve the sustainability of the tea industry.
Twinings was the first brand to come forward with a list of its suppliers offering the assurance that all its suppliers were third-party certified. They were followed by Bettys & Taylors Group, owners of Yorkshire Tea, the first “big brand” to publish their supplier list. The others followed suit.
Unilever has since extended this degree of traceability beyond Assam. In September this year, the conglomerate published its global supplier list for tea, a list that spans 21 countries including China, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Unilever’s executive vice president for beverages, Mick Van Ettinger, was quoted as saying, “With transparency comes transformation.”
The UN estimates around 25 million people to be “trapped in forced labor”. The practice extends across manufacturing industries. The UN has set a goal to end modern-day slavery by 2030. The onus is on consumers to demand where the products they buy originate, by insisting producers demonstrated their suppliers ensure acceptable working conditions.
With place of origin and source playing a big part in brand marketing, consumers increasingly demand this transparency. Unilever’s move towards slave-free tea is one that should find adoption by other brands. It is indeed a step forward for brands and offers a sound talking point. But what does it really mean for the worker on the ground, who may not be enjoying their due rights? How can they benefit from this open access to knowledge and information?
Traidcraft’s policy adviser, Tom Wills, was quoted as saying, “Unilever’s decision to publish its global supplier list gives the women who pick the tea we drink more power to push for better pay and conditions, wherever they work. Making the supplier list public means tea workers can complain directly to a global brand when standards fall short of what is being advertised to western consumers.”
Certification bodies such as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ address the working and living conditions of tea garden workers, ensuring that human rights and obligations to workers are protected. In India, Unilever was part of the group that introduced Trustea, a tea quality certification customized for India that includes workers’ rights and working environment among its zero-tolerance criteria.
Globally manufacturers are stepping up towards eradicating slave-workers. In 2015, The Thomson Reuters Foundation launched the Stop Slavery award to acknowledge companies seeking to eradicate slave conditions and clean up their own supply chains. Modern slavery is defined as people “coerced into working through force or fraud at no pay beyond subsistence. All types of slavery – including sex trafficking, debt bondage, domestic servitude, and forced labor – rely on violence or the threat of violence.” Previous winners include Unilever and Apple, Intel, and Adidas.
Reuters observed that as large businesses across the western world take the lead to clean up their sources of raw material, they are bringing a much-needed shift in the fight against modern slavery. What is needed now is to ensure that the workers on the gardens are made aware of their rights, and empowered to resist and fight abuse, and have access to support for their justice.