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Human Trafficking Center

Trafficking in the Tea Industry and What Can Be Done About It


Apr 2015



by Nicky Mades, HTC Associate

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:

  • The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) reports accounts of Indian tea workers’ exploitation both in India and its neighboring countries, including Bangladesh.
  • In China, Laogai penal camps use forced labor to produce a number of items that are sold in the United States, including tea.
  • The State Department reports that Cameroonian children are used as pluckers in the tea industry.
  • Likewise, the State Department also states that child tea workers in Tamil, Sri Lanka are subject to physical, sexual, and mental abuse.

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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4 Responses to “Trafficking in the Tea Industry and What Can Be Done About It”

  1. M.R.Sufi Dole

    Sri Lanka (Ceylon) has a huge problem where the labor in tea plantations is concerned. The cost of labor as a percentage of the cost of production averages 70% – the highest in the world for tea producers. This is in spite of labor giving tea plantation companies the least volume of green leaf pickings output per day among producing countries worldwide. All tea plantation workers enjoy free housing, severely subsidized electricity, free medical facilities for all workers and their families with a full – time dedicated Estate Medical Assistant (Doctor) and Midwife supported by a team which includes Crèche facilities for mums who are workers, education (even up to end of Uni is completely free [something the Americans should note before making comments] – and this includes free school uniforms / text and exercise books – our national literacy rate is 93% – the highest in the SAARC Region and above Malaysia and many ASEAN countries); cooking and heating fuel is free, and in addition to all this, they work lesser hours than other workers throughout the country. All tea plantation company workers are paid salaries above the national averages paid to workers in Sri Lanka and they have EPF and ETF Schemes for which these companies have to pay direct to the Government a total of 15% of their total earnings and gratuity worked at 1 month for each year worked after 5 years of employment (1st five years also considered in settlement). Our Tea plantation workers do not have to pee in the bushes, because every line quarters for each family has its own toilet – the estates do not have to rely on peeing for their NPK fertilizers as they have adequate budget. Yes we are aware that 53% of Indians don’t have access to toilets which mean 600 million pee (etc) in the open!! Yes, slavery does exist in tea plantations in India (I watched the BBC interview when it was first released) and we are aware about abuses in Kenya, India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. I have lived in Bangladesh for a couple of years and was amazed at the level of poverty and slavery there. I have traveled in India and Pakistan so am aware about slavery, there too. So for the sake of balanced reporting kindly advice your readers the truth about Tea which originates from Sri Lanka, and drink responsibly by specifying “Pure Ceylon Tea”.

  2. Disgust 01 | NY

    […] These conditions are not merely disgusting, they are a stain across everything that we boast about in our modern, compassionate democracies; we are not just, we are not humanists if we permit slavery to exist in the same nations which provide our technology and our favorite Apple products. […]

  3. Ashley

    Thank you for this post! It’s impossible to track all of the supply chains for all of the products I use, but I do drink a lot of tea. One product at a time, I can look for ways to buy products made free of labor exploitation. The resources you provided are perfect.

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