Sabita Banerji, CEO of The International Roundtable For Sustainable Tea

Sabita Banerji, CEO of The International Roundtable For Sustainable Tea

Many of the tea workers on India's largest plantations are provided with housing to live and work in the gardens.

Many of the tea workers on India's largest plantations are provided with housing to live and work in the gardens.

Sabita Banerji is a lifelong campaigner for human rights, ethical trading and now she’s CEO of THIRST - The first International Roundtable For Sustainable Tea. As today is United Nations International Tea Day, we thought it's be a great day to hear and share Sabita's ideas for what we can do as tea lovers can do to support a more sustainable future for the tea industry.

International Tea Day is a day set up to promote and foster collective action for the sustainable production and consumption of tea, while raising awareness of its value in fighting hunger and poverty. Last year we wrote about why this day matters. In short, with mass-market black teas predominantly blended from lots of different places and sold at prices as low as around 2p a teabag, there’s not enough money in the supply chain to support the gardens and people that produce the tea. We believe that together with organisations like the UN and awareness days, it is possible to rebuild consumers’ sense of the value of tea – and so raise the price they are willing to pay. This belief in the urgent need to rebuild value in our industry is something we share with Sabita Banerji.

Will and Sabita chatted about the situations and challenges people face on the large plantations or estates that make up much of the tea landscape in India – and what we as tea drinkers can do about them.

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Will: Can you tell me a bit about THIRST and what the aims are for the organisation?

Sabita: THIRST was set up to bring about positive change in the tea industry by being a platform for all voices to come together. That means hearing from workers, listening to farmers, to companies and governments, and try to understand what all of us can do together, with civil society, to make tea into a fair and sustainable industry.

W: So a true roundtable?

S: Yes, exactly!

W: You grew up on tea estates in India, what was that like?

S: I was born on a tea plantation in Kerala, South India and lived there until I was nine. Then we moved to a tea plantation in Assam and when I was 12, we came to England. So, my early formative years were spent in these beautiful tea growing areas. Of course, as a child, I was completely blind to the beauty though! I do think children have an innate sense of fairness and I can remember it feeling wrong that we had a very comfortable life in a big house around us when there were people, some of whom worked in our house or worked in the tea gardens, who just had these little, tiny huts to live in. When you see general statistics about Kerala, it reports very high literacy, good health rates, good income levels and low maternal mortality rates, but if you look at what’s happening on the plantations, and what I saw growing up, those statistics are definitely not the whole story.

W: What happened next, did you continue working in tea?

S: I’ll admit that I’d forgotten about tea for a while and began my career working with Oxfam. It wasn’t until years later, I heard by chance that the tea plantations where we'd been brought up, were now owned by the workers and that they had shares in the company. I found this idea fascinating, and I was curious to find out more. So I returned to my birthplace in Munnar, Kerala, for the first time in years, and found out they'd done happiness surveys on the plantations and there was a correlation between happiness and workers now feeling their sense of ownership. I was really inspired by this positive impact, so I started finding out more about fair trade and ethical trade.

“I was in the midst of this huge turmoil, this uprising of women workers, whilst I myself was working in ethical trade. It was an extraordinary moment and it just felt like a calling.”

Most of the tea picking on the plantations in India is done by women.

Most of the tea picking on the plantations in India is done by women.

The Pempillai Orumai, or Unity of Women, lead a worker's strike in Munnar, Kerala.

The Pempillai Orumai, or Unity of Women, lead a worker's strike in Munnar, Kerala.

Later, I began working for the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is an initiative of companies, trade unions and NGOs looking at working conditions in global supply chains. I was sent to visit garment factories in Tamil Nadu, not very far from where I was born. So I thought, oh, I'll go back to the plantation and find out a bit more about these contented workers. But when I got to the office, it was locked up and from every direction were women waving black flags, shouting protest slogans. I tried to ask them what it was all about and they told me they were tea workers, and it was about their wages. I was so confused. How could these women who own the company go on strike? I kept asking them about the ownership shares and they just looked at me blank. They said the trade unions were not representing them effectively and that they had sold them out to the companies who now refused to pay their annual bonus. The wages they were getting didn't really cover all of their basic needs, so many of them were borrowing money from loan sharks, knowing that they'll get their usual 20 percent bonus at the end of the year. But, when the company said it's only going to be 10 percent because of profit margin issues, it left the workers in an incredibly difficult position, with a debt that they can't pay it back. There I was in the midst of this huge turmoil, this uprising of women workers, in the place where I’d grown up, whilst I myself was working in ethical trade. It was an extraordinary moment and it just felt like a calling.

Ever since that day, in the midst of those women – who called themselves Pempillai Orumai, which means ‘Unity of Women’ in Tamil –  I've been thinking about how best to try and support them and workers like them in the tea industry.. So I spoke with Oxfam, who had been doing some work in the tea industry in Malawi and also to the Ethical Tea Partnership. They both said, what's really needed is a platform where civil society can come together, pool all our knowledge and coordinate our work, then it's likely to have a stronger voice and more impact for change in the tea industry. So that was the idea for THIRST. I set up properly in 2018 and almost exactly a year ago, we were awarded our charitable status.

“A lot of companies are now trying to address these two issues, the environment and improving the conditions for the workers. Some are doing better than others, but there’s still a lot to be done”

W: What’s life like now for these tea communities?

S: Traditionally the plantation model means whole families living on the estate, with the housing, schooling and everything provided. Each estate is made up of a management team– managers, associate managers and supervisors and then the workers. Generally the women do the tea plucking, and men work in the processing factories. The tea that they produce will then be sold by auction or private sales. There are two huge issues they face, firstly with the prices of tea so low and so not enough money, the housing can be very low quality, run down and severely overcrowded. The second is that estates tend to be really large, you know, huge monocultures. You see this beautiful photograph of rolling hills with nothing but tea, you’ll hear some environmentalists describing them as ‘green deserts’ because there's no biodiversity.

Although a lot of companies are now trying to address these two issues – environments and those of the living conditions of the workers, some are doing better than others but there’s still a lot to be done.

W: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by these big issues affecting the tea industry, climate change, soil degradation and poverty. What are the steps you've seen people taking that are having an impact?

S: I think there are lots of pockets of good practice and things that are working but working out the steps that each part of the industry can take to have an impact is something I want to look at in much more detail as part of a human rights impact assessment we’re undertaking over the next three years.

It’s in response to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, urging companies to take responsibility for human rights in their supply chain. It became clear that this is what is needed for the industry as a whole, to actually find out what the issues are, where the risks are and what needs to be addressed.  It's no good picking one company and saying, okay, we'll do it with our supply chain, because it is such a global industry and it's so interconnected. There's a limit to how much one company can do on their own.

W: Last year we saw the initial impact of the Covid pandemic in Darjeeling and Assam, which caused many to go into lockdown and miss out on the important first flush picking season. With the recent surge in cases how is it affecting them now?

S: For a while we were thinking how lucky it was that covid hasn't got it into the tea estates, but now it has. Two hundred. Five hundred….The numbers are just shooting up and the thing is the tea companies say, well we shouldn't be restricted in working because we can ensure that there's the correct social distancing, that people are working outside and we can put in place measures to prevent transmission. But the big issue in tea estates is that the houses are all side by side in a terrace and they'll generally be two room houses with an entire family, or even extended family living in each one, so they can't socially distance at home. The Indian strain is now so infectious that it could rip through that accommodation and the plantations don't have the infrastructure to deal with it.

Sabita gets hands on with some tea, tasting her way through batches of freshly produced black tea

Sabita gets hands on with some tea, tasting her way through batches of freshly produced black tea

“I think consumers often think that they don't have very much power. But actually, I think companies hugely value and respect what their consumers do.”

Sabita meets with tea workers at a Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting in India.

Sabita meets with tea workers at a Fairtrade Premium Committee meeting in India.

W: It sounds like the pandemic is further highlighting some of the systemic issues..

S: Yes, I think Covid keeps bringing into the spotlight problems that have been there forever and I think this housing issue is a huge one. This is something, I think, that tea brands, retailers and consumers really need to be both lobbying for and supporting. I don't believe that the tea plantations are deliberately forcing their workers to live in substandard housing. I think if they could, they would give them decent housing. But they are operating in a way that means the value isn’t evenly distributed along the supply chain. Only a tiny, minuscule proportion of what you pay for commodity tea in a shop or a café goes back to the producer and that needs to be more fairly distributed to enable them to provide better quality housing. Or, to change the system so that workers can own the houses themselves, do the repairs themselves and get paid a decent wage.

W: For everyday tea drinkers reading about these issues, what can they do to make a difference?

S: I think consumers often think that they don't have very much power. But actually, I believe companies do listen. Consumers need to be vocal to their favourite tea company, to their supermarket or the places they shop urging them to support initiatives that improve housing and wages in tea. Mostly, if consumers are demonstrating with the choices they make that they're willing to pay a little bit more for their tea so conditions with the industry will improve, then it shows the direction they want things to go.

W: What’s next for THIRST?

S: Our next big event is happening on the 27th May - we're hosting a talk on technology, transparency and tea, discussing how technology is being used to improve conditions for the workers and farmers.

You can find out more at THIRST.International, where you can also sign up for monthly updates, to stay informed on all our upcoming events, as well as a roundup of news from around the world on the environment and human rights issues in the tea industry.

What can you do?

As Sabita mentions there are things that we can do, as tea drinkers, to elicit change in the industry. Here are a few ideas…

• Pay a fair price for your tea – just a few pence more will not only give you a better tasting tea but it’ll mean more money in the supply chain – and a much better chance of this filtering down to the people who need it most.
• Choosing tea from a single origin – or even a single garden – is the easiest way to make sure you know where your tea’s come from and to actively support a specific origin.
• Choose organic – either certified or teas produced with organic methods. Increasing demand for organic ensure more sustainable farming and production methods, protecting the gardens, the environment, soil health and the people growing your tea.

To find more information and learn how you can help beat the COVID-19 crisis in India visit Doctors Without Borders, British Red Cross and UNICEF.