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Tea industry to collaborate as new report slams human rights record

March 2014

A new collaboration between key players in the global tea industry has been launched by sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future.

The Tea 2030 partners include four of the seven companies responsible for 90% of the world tea market: Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, James Finlay and Twinings, together with the Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade International, IDH, Rainforest Alliance, S&D Coffee and Tea and Yorkshire Tea. It is also supported by the International Tea Committee.

The initiative calls for the sector to find legal ways to collaborate – while continuing to compete – to turn tea from a standard commodity into a ‘hero crop’ which benefits the millions who work in all parts of the industry as well as the wider environment and economy. 

Collaboration will focus on three key areas: sustainable production, market mechanisms and consumer engagement.
Forum for the Future has published ‘The Future of Tea – A Hero Crop for 2030’ which identifies the challenges facing the industry including climate change, population growth, and competition for agricultural land and water. It presents four possible scenarios for the year 2030 which are designed as a tool to help businesses plan for the future and develop sustainable products and business models.

The Forum’s report and Tea 2030 initiative launch coincided with the publication by the Institute of Human Rights at Columbia Law School that showed that Indian tea plantation workers are paid less than £2 per day and live in inhumane conditions. “The living conditions on the plantations presented some of the most conspicuous violations of Indian law,” the report states.

The report, “The More Things Change... The World Bank, Tata and Enduring Abuses on India’s Tea Plantations” , is the result of a three-year study in which researchers visited 17 plantations in Assam used by Amalgamated Plantations Pvt Ltd (APPL), a company in which Tata Global Beverages (owner of the Tetley brand) holds a stake. The report also criticised a widely welcomed employee share-ownership scheme established with finance from the World Bank’s lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Workers said the scheme was pushed by APPL with “threats and duress” but little information or independent advice.

APPL said the Columbia report was “incorrect and misleading in some parts, which are injurious to our interests and defamatory”. The company operated within all laws on pay and conditions and “believes in continuous up-gradation of standards of working and operations”.

Peter Rosenblum, Columbia Law School’s professor of human rights and the report’s director, told Ethical Performance: “APPL is able to rely on the fact that very few people ever go to the plantations to verify their claims. As we document, the IFC has never supported an unnanounced audit. Workers claim that they have never encountered an auditor in the labour lines. Worse, they are all quite familiar with the word ‘audit’ because they are systematically ordered to prepare for them in advance: clean up, paint buildings, move patients out of the hospital, etc. We could have called the report “Hidden in plain sight” because everything we identify is easily verified and well-known to those who live in the plantation world.”

Dr Ann-Marie Brouder, principal sustainability advisor, Forum for the Future commented: “The issues raised in this report, such as labour and human rights, are unfortunately not confined to tea alone and are common to other agricultural sectors; hence the solutions will only come from wider collaboration outside of the tea sector, involving national and regional governments, unions and NGOs.

“The tea sector is aware of and facing up to its problems, and through collaborations such as the Ethical Tea Partnership and Tea 2030, exploring how these problems and future challenges can be tackled.”

The World Bank has said it will hold its own inquiry into the allegations. 

Global | Human rights


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