A love of tea isn’t one that comes naturally to me, but surely no one can resist the sweet smell of ginger, honey and crispy tea leaves brewing beneath you. Borough Market, located a short walk from London Bridge, is well known for its eclectic stands and high-quality food stuffs. Though, less is known of its international connectivity and the conscientious spirit embodying the wholesome foods, so highly sought for by the British public. Sipping my chai, indulged by the placid surroundings of one of the tiny tea houses in the market, I chat with Ratan Mondal, a tea connoisseur from Darjeeling state in India. “I’m dictating the whole of England with my tea.” He says. “It’s proper, handpicked, ethically sourced and sustainably grown.” My mind opens. A world of tea entwined with international development.
On average, we drink 36 billion cups of tea a year in Britain, according to UK Tea and Infusions Association. It’s not hard to comprehend the UK’s obsession with the beverage. Importing an estimated 127 thousand tons of tea leaves alone, valuing at a colossal £142 million, it leaves no doubt that Britain really takes the international biscuit as it slurps down its global impact.
Tea is great for business as many of the leading brands will tell you. But less is known of its impact on the producers. Two thirds of people in less economically developed countries work in primary industries including agriculture and pastoral farming, yet not much is heard from them and the impact of our demand on their lives.
Fiona Gooch, Senior Policy Advisor at Traidcraft Exchange, a UK charity fighting against injustice in global trade, speaks of the need for British people to become awake consumers and to realise our responsibility within a global chain of events.
Explaining further, she speaks of the systemic problems associated with poverty that are entrenched within globalisation, saying that, “there are systems that keep people poor. We’ve passed policies and rules and regulations that systematically keep people poor and we need to change some of that.”
Trans-national companies whose strongholds dominate the international markets, “are producing shareholder returns.” Fiona also comments. “Shareholders are not really even interested in the product. They just want to see that there’s money coming in. Companies have to think, how they can buy at the cheapest possible price, sell at the highest possible price, make the maximum amount of money and deliver profits.”.
The negligence of many large multi-national companies towards their foreign workers have gone unnoticed for a long time. But now more efforts are being made to ensure that the producers at the bottom the supply chain have their rights upheld and that they are paid justly. Tea workers no longer feel compelled to hold an oath of silence in the hope of a measly pittance for their survival. According to the international media organisation, Peoples Dispatch, “hundreds of tea workers from Assam protested in Delhi” in March earlier this year. The workers demanded the “implementation of minimum wages and for the betterment of working conditions.” In April, “the Supreme Court of India granted some relief to the tea garden workers in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, directing the governments of these states to pay half the dues owed to the workers.” However, the workers are yet to see any lasting change regarding their working conditions.
Back in Borough Market, Ratan and his tea house are making small differences. “Ethically sourced and sustainably grown” he utters with pride, as he explains that the key to running his business is through cooperation and shared interests. He reiterates that, “the growers help me, and I help the growers.”.
But it isn’t just the tea brands themselves that can make a difference. Charities like Traidcraft Exchange are encouraging the public to demand equality in trade. In May 2018, Traidcraft Exchange launched the ‘Who picked my tea?’ campaign in which they are urging tea companies to clearly state where they source their tea; in the hope that it will restore accountability among the brands and incentive them to protect their workers. Traidcraft succeeded in getting the six largest tea brands in the UK, including the likes of PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Tetley to publish their sources.
The tea business may seem the unlikely source of progress for international development, but there is a broader outlook for what it represents. As consumers, it is essential to understand that the so-called ‘insignificant’ decisions we make, impact on millions of people, despite the hundreds of miles between us. Consumers can no longer afford to remain unconscious to it. There is a shared responsibility to ensure a secure and dignified life for the people living in this world, of whom work so hard to gift many others the pleasure of a comfortable existence.
Check out the short video report explaining more about Tea’s role in international development.