Friday, February 19, 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve been watching some videos about tea pickers.
No matter how fine a tea we might drink, the person who took those delicate leaves from the Camellia Sinensis is probably very poor.
Tea work is seasonal; workers may get 3 to 5 months work per year in many cases.
Like many people, I suspect, I suffer a little guilt at enjoying this product knowing how poorly some tea workers are treated. Alternatively, to not drink it would mean even less work for these people.
I have to wonder, though, why it should be as bad as it is.
Now, we all know there are people who treat their workers well, with dignity and pay wages that are considered to be very good locally.
So, I’d like to touch on two teas, just briefly.
My last blog was about Dilmah, whose treatment of their workers is certainly at the forefront of ‘modern’ thinking.
And then there’s Daintree, a tea grown here in Australia, which means that workers must be paid according to Australian minimum wages. I suspect the picking is done by backpackers and other seasonal labourers, and whilst it’s hardly the best paying job in town, I think a week in Australia tea-picking would probably earn more money that a season in Kenya.
So, here’s something to note: Neither tea is expensive.
Okay, so I can see that Daintree does not need to be shipped overseas and does not have to get through stringent Australian Customs, which must be a cost saving. And Dilmah is, with the greatest of respect, a “supermarket brand”.
But gram for gram, how can the pittance paid to these pickers actually affect tea prices? Clearly not much.
If you look at Fairtrade – and I’m both a big supporter and strident critic of Fairtrade, which seems to be a curate’s egg at best – the value of the extra money paid to the pickers is, by western standards, not great. It seems that when these people are ten feet  deep in a fiscal hole, the standard rope of one foot versus the Fairtrade rope of two feet is only a theoretical help.
But once Fairtrade credentials are established, the tea is actually worth more. So Fairtrade becomes in effect, a bribe to tea companies to do the right thing. It’s the consumer that’s paying the bribe.
If tea was picked in places where there was stable and reliable government, a simple tax could be instituted to build schools and medical facilities, paid for by the tea consumer. I think that’s fair.
But how many people believe that Kenya, Sri Lanka, India or the ‘worker’s paradise’ of China are places where money ends up where it is intended most of the time?
In Kenya, tea pickers seem to me to be particularly disadvantaged, These people are trapped – can’t afford to work, can’t afford not to.
I’ve got this crazy idea that I might take some time off and go and pick tea for a few months up in Queensland; before I turn 50 in 6 years time. Then, I can donate the money I earn to a reputable charity that is building something worthwhile in Darjeeling or the Rift Valley.
I will therefore have absolved my tea conscience. Might have to pick some coffee on the same trip, for the same reasons.
To all tea drinkers, I suggest the best we can do is to continue to drink tea,
And continue to consider how it got into our cup.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Tea King of Sri Lanka

I am fascinated my most aspects of tea. But one that always has stuck in my head is the image of Merrill J. Fernando. This quaintly old-fashioned gentleman would smile out of commercials for Dilmah tea, inviting me with his slogan “Do Try It” – a slogan as inoffensive as he is.

I became aware of the fact that he was incorporating his sons into his commercials. And when you bought the tea – yes, back then I used to buy tea bags – there was often a letter included, where Mr Fernando would let you know of the happenings within his tea family.

I loved those letters. They didn’t change often enough. I craved the next bit of news. After all, this was a while back, when there wasn’t much of an internet.

I realised that not only was he a family man, but that his ‘family’ included all of those who worked for him. With no middleman, he was able to control the whole process from employing the pickers to selling the tea. So if there were people exploited – or there weren’t – it was down to him.

I remember being asked about 5 years ago to name a person I admired , and I chose to expound upon his exploits. That’s right. Most people think I am eccentric at best, anyway and this did nothing to change that.

But here’s a quote that will help you to see what I mean:

‘Workers receive assistance in their day-to day existence with subsidised groceries, assistance with housing, interest free loans as well as the usual requirements of health, etc. Additionally, we try to be flexible in understanding their needs and addressing them at all levels.

On the tea estates, the work of the MJF Foundation brings tea pluckers the benefi ts of free medicines, free hospital facilities, educational scholarships, nutritional programmes and assistance for elderly and re tired workers, child-care facilities in crèches which have been upgraded to model crèche standards by the Foundation, amongst others.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

In an industry where exploitation is the norm, this is most unusual.

And then came the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004:

‘Our response to the enormous suffering caused by the tsunami took two forms: short-term emergency assistance (which included tending to the injured, providing food, medicine, drink ing water, etc.) and long-term reconstruction (rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, providing psychological support for the affected and ultimately rebuilding the socioeconomic fabric of the coastal communities) ‘Among the fisher communities which bore the brunt of the tsunami, the MJF Foundation has, like several other charities, replaced boats, nets, provided engines, community centres and storage facilities. What is a little different about our activ ity in these areas is that we have tried to ensure that the material assistance we provide is part of a comprehensive and sustainable programme of assistance rather than simply being a donation of goods.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

His two sons were introduced into the business at ground level and have worked their way up to management positions. They weren't handed management jobs, they had to prove their worth. along the way, they found thier niches. That's a smart move.

As I write this column, I intend to touch on the good, the bad and the ugly of the international tea trade. So, I have started with a fine example of the good - a man by whom not just tea growers but all sorts of people can be judged and found wanting, your humble author included!

The Devotea raises a cup of tea to Merrill J. Fernando.