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What price a cup of tea?

 I do love a cup of tea.  My mum liked a cup of tea too.  Whenever we returned from shopping or some other activity, visiting friends, etc. she would immediately say "Let's put the kettle on and have a nice cup of tea!"  In those days, the 1950s, it was always Co-op 99.  Co-op 99 is relevant to this story because it was the first branded tea in the UK to become 'Fairtrade.'  But what price our cup of tea? 

Joanna K Photography
According to the Tea and Infusions Association, in Britain, we drink an estimated 165 million cups of tea a day or over 60 billion in a year.  That's a lot of tea.   There is only one country that drinks more tea than does the UK - Ireland. 

In the UK, tea varies in price from £1.10 for a Tesco's own box of 80 tea-bags to £2.40 for a branded variety, such as Typhoo.  But, whichever you choose, very little of it finds its way to the tea pickers in the fields of India, China, or Africa.  The lion's share goes to the retailers.  For Tesco's own-brand, that would be 58 pence taken by Tesco, while the blender (Typhoo, Tetley, etc.) takes 36 pence; eight pence goes to the factory,  7 pence to the global trader, and a penny to the auctioneers.   That just leaves 0.2 of a penny (less than an old farthing) for the tea picker. 

Tea is a poverty-wage product.  The tea business is India‘s second-largest employer. It employs over 3.5 million people across some 1,686 estates and 157,504 smallholdings, most of the workers being women.  It is barely short of slave labour. Tea plantation workers are mostly Adivasis, who are descendants of workers forcefully recruited and brought by colonial planters more than 150 years ago from neighbouring states such as Jharkhand, Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh to work exclusively on the plantations.  We don't see many, if any statues of them, yet we depend on them for our cuppa.  It is a history of appalling subjugation of a people by a landed aristocracy, and it continues today. 

In Assam and West Bengal, a tea picker's daily wage is around 115 rupees in Assam and 122 rupees in West Bengal. By comparison, the minimum wage for an unskilled agricultural worker in India is 222 rupees, almost twice as much as that paid to female tea pickers.  They are poorly nourished, tied to the land, while their children have limited access to education.  A recent report described it as 'a life without dignity.' 

Tea is a monoculture and a haven for pests, and many producers have switched to chemical pesticides to increase yields.  There have been many reports of the amounts of pesticide residues found in the tea that we drink.  As for the workers, they are exposed to these pesticides with the minimum of protection.  Many of these pesticides are damaging to cognitive development.  We often pride ourselves on our advanced regulations regarding the use of pesticides, but what purpose are these if we allow trade predicated on poverty and potential harm to those who produce the products we consume? 

392,700 farmers and workers across 11 countries are involved in Fairtrade tea production. 10,700 tonnes of tea was sold as Fairtrade in 2017. This means certified farmers and workers earned €5.3 million in Fairtrade Premium in 2017.

On plantations, workers invest almost half of their Premium in community services such as housing, education and healthcare. However, Fairtrade certified organisations sell only around 7 per cent of their tea on Fairtrade terms – this means they don’t benefit from being certified to the extent that they could.

In the UK, while sales of Fairtrade tea have more than doubled since 2000, they still only account for roughly 8 per cent of all UK tea sales. When UK shoppers choose Fairtrade tea, tea producers sell more of their product on Fairtrade terms and can work towards a more sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.  

We should insist that the UK government puts fairtrade at the heart of new trade deals post-Brexit. We should care about the consequences of the cheap products we consume.  We should ask who pays the real price. 




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