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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post Robert. Fairtrade or not fairtrade... it's a minefield isn't it. Charles Cain at the Adagio Retail blog has an interesting post on the pros and cons as well.

    I would note that re: the wages earned by tea (or fruit for that matter) pickers in Australia... the cost of living is also much higher here. But it's all relative isn't it?