In 2012, 3.6 billion gallons of tea were consumed in the United States. Despite this large quantity, the average cost of a cup of tea when made at home averaged only 0.03 cents. The high quantity of tea consumption, coupled with its low purchasing price, has resulted in many consumers being unaware of not only where their tea comes from, but the extent to which labor exploitation plays a significant role in the tea industry’s supply chain.
What Forced Labor Looks Like
Forced labor is one of the most common abuses occurring in the tea industry, including, but not limited to, nonpayment, wage theft, and restrictions of movement. The US Department of Labor recognizes the use of forced labor and/or child labor in the tea industry in Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Forced labor in tea plantations and tea shops also reportedly occurs in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka.
Accounts of exploitation in the global tea industry vary, depending on the country and the individuals who work within the tea industry. Some documented examples include:
Traditionally, tea plantation workers are promised benefits by their employers that include education, medical assistance, subsidized food rations and drinking water, but receipt of these benefits remains inconsistent. There are many limitations that inhibit these individuals from receiving said benefits, such as the common practice by plantation owners of placing extremely high daily quotas on laborers. This often causes parents to bring their children to the fields to help with plucking.
Growing and producing tea requires a significant number of people undergoing intense labor, increasing the risk of systemic labor abuses. Cultivating tea bushes requires strenuous work and plucking or picking tea leaves is a year-round endeavor with most of the activity occurring in a country’s rainy season. As a result, large numbers of seasonal workers are hired but not legally registered by plantation owners.
What Can Be Done?
The reality that forced labor has an overwhelming presence in the tea industry should not deter customers from using their purchasing power to change how tea laborers are treated. Individuals can ask their local tea shops to post short bios about a featured tea that highlights the measures taken to ensure workers were treated and paid fairly, or ask tea companies for informational excerpts on the labor involved in the production of their product.
Customers can also take advantage of various conscious consumer options made available through some tea companies. One such example is Teavana, which has partnered with CARE, a humanitarian organization working to alleviate poverty and empower women and girls. According to World Vision, tea drinkers can purchase their favorite beverage from certified fair trade companies, such as Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. To assist in smart consumer actions, World Vision has also created the Good Tea Guide to help consumers purchase tea free from labor exploitation.
Avoiding tea products that utilize forced labor is only the first step toward changing the practices and treatment of the tea laborers; it is also vital that consumers advocate for long-term accountability in the products they enjoy. One way that can be accomplished is through legislative means, such as California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires that all California retail sellers and manufacturers that make over $100 million per year publically validate that labor exploitation did not occur at any point during the production of the item. The United States House of Representatives has proposed to amend the Securities in Exchange Act of 1934, which would call for transparency in supply chains across the nation.
Such action steps, from individual choices to federal passage of a bill, are some of the many necessary steps toward creating an environment free from exploitation in the tea industry.
Photo: Via Creative Commons
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