The Plight of Tea Workers in Nilgiris, India

Oriental Moon, a South India black tea blend

The health benefits of tea make almost daily headlines these days: Lose weight! Loaded with antioxidants! Fight cancer!

But what about the health of those who work in the tea industry?

Here the proclamations are not always so glowing.

nilgiris-india-web-1.jpgTake the Nilgiris District of southern India, for example.

Their Tea

As a whole, southern India produces only 18% of the country’s tea—even though India grows a quarter of the worldwide total. However, because the Nilgiris region “has lately gained a reputation for making good premium teas,” they are certainly not inconsequential (Economic Times 8/19/19).

The Problems

Yet a study just published in the IOSR Journal of Economics and Finance makes some alarming claims specifically about the Nilgiris tea industry. According to authors Dr. M. Raja and Dr. C. Mythili (2019:33):

  • “tea plantation workers are still getting below the minimum wage of Agricultural workers”
  • “during . . . [peak] season, the workers are ordered to report for work nearly 12 hours” or more
  • during the peak, “legally permissible temporary leave and medical leave are not granted”
  • “hundreds of tea plantation workers are affected from water-borne diseases”
  • “there are no drinking water facilities and drainage systems is [sic] most of the plantations”
  • “most of the workers are suffering from Anemia and Tuberculosis”
  • malaria, leeches, and snake bites are rampant
  • “the health system is not effective”
  • children are “compelled to join the Tea Labour work force as unskilled workers after passing from the lower primary schools of gardens,” with few alternate options for schooling and jobs
Ginger Orange, a South India black tea blend

Compounding Issues

Add sustained cold temps and frost to the mix?

The result isn’t good for anyone.

As of mid-January, tea workers in Nilgiris—where tea is picked year-round—had spent weeks struggling to find work. Frost has blackened the leaves, caused leaf blister, and stunted growth, making the tea leaves unusable.

With smallholders comprising the majority of tea producers in Nilgiris, extensive frost damage is potentially devastating to their viability.

Blood Orange, a South India black tea blend

Less tea to pick, lowered production, fewer wages paid to workers, lower profits for garden owners. And profit margins were narrow and production costs high before this latest calamity even hit (Economic Times 8/19/19)!

Perhaps a Caveat

Some balance is required. The cohort studied by Drs. Raja and Mythili numbered only 300 individuals, and in their conclusions they acknowledge that due to the shortage of workers, “workers’ rights are relatively well respected with most having permanent contracts” (2019:37).

Further, they point out that improvements in maintaining a healthy ecosystem and in documenting sustainability standards are already underway, which will eventually boost workers’ health.

However, very real problems remain, and Drs. Raja and Mythili call for better health care, disease prevention measures, and policies to address wages.

Finding Solutions

The tea industry is India’s largest employer. Most of these employees are women, with around 80% of them plucking tea. Thus, tea plantations—and women—are crucial to India’s economy.

Ginger Orange tea

Labor costs currently account for two-thirds of production costs, which are already high. It’s difficult to increase wages when profit margins are low. So how do you change that?

One way is by producing higher-quality teas, which command better prices.

Currently 90% of India’s tea is CTC and only 8.4% is orthodox or whole leaf (remaining 1.6% is green tea) (Economic Times 8/19/18). Of the CTC, most of that is consumed domestically, in the form of granules rather than leaf tea. The better teas are typically exported and are not readily available within the country.

Start-ups are trying to change that by marketing to Indians and making higher-quality tea available for purchase online and in stores. Chains are opening tea bars within the country. Mudit Kumar, Tea Association of India president, stressed billing tea as an “aspirational consumption experience” (Economic Times 1/19/19)

Educating consumers, along with effective branding and marketing within India, ought to stimulate demand for better tea, at least eventually. It’s hard to change what people have been drinking for ages, especially when you ask them to pay more for the privilege.

Blood Orange tea

But there are additional areas of potential growth. India produces a quarter of the world’s tea but only one-tenth of total exports.

At a recent forum, the Tea Board of India addressed the industry’s current problems and the need to increase exports. Their goals align with those of the 2018 Agriculture Export Policy, and Tea Board chairman Arun Kumar Ray (Economic Times 1/25/19) emphasized that the industry must:

  • have tight quality control, which will help the export market
  • meet the worldwide demand for orthodox and organic teas
  • develop sustainable methods and traceability
  • foster cooperation between large plantations and small growers

This all sounds well and good, and maybe represents some progress since August when the Economic Times (8/19/18) had this to say:

The Tea Board of India, under the ministry of commerce, has often been criticised for not changing with the times. [Azam] Monem [chairman of the Indian Tea Association] says the body has lost its relevance as global trade opened up. It failed to promote tea as a drink. . . . K Gopal Krishnan, director of Glenworth Estate in the Nilgiris, says the southern tea industry has not got the support of the board.

Brewed leaves, Ginger Orange tea

Stricter laws have been passed that confront wages and labor issues, and wages for some workers in India have improved.

Enough to address all those points raised by Drs. Raja and Mythili?

Kumar (Economic Times 1/19/19) acknowledges that “we need to find solutions for sharing the costs of looking after the welfare of our work-force, jointly with the government.”

Will it happen? Hopefully so, because if everything that Drs. Raja and Mythili say is true, it’s unconscionable.

Brewed leaves, Blood Orange tea

And our role?

Patronize companies that care about how their tea was produced and who plucked and processed that tea.

Because it’s more than tea. It’s those very real—very precious—people behind the tea.

–”Continued frost casts a dark spell on tea estates, workers,” by P. Ramkumar, Economic Times, January 17, 2019.
–”India’s tea industry is struggling to move up the value chain,” by G. Seetharaman, Economic Times, August 19, 2018.
–”Sustainable livelihood and economic status of tea labourers in the Nilgiris District,” by Dr. M. Raja and Dr. C. Mythili, IOSR Journal of Economics and Finance 10(1:III) (Jan.–Feb. 2019):33–38, DOI 10.9790/5933-1001033338.
–”Tea board all set to draw roadmap for increasing exports,” by S. Ghosal, Economic Times, January 25, 2019.
–”Tea must be promoted as an aspirational consumption experience: President of tea association of India, Mudit Kumar,” by B. Singh, Economic Times, January 19, 2019.

See related post: Mechanization Rolling into India’s Tea Gardens?

Teas shown are available from TeaHaus, whose suppliers work directly with tea garden owners, growers, and managers of smaller estates to ensure transparency and participation in fair trade practices and ecological stewardship.

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