Monday, March 1, 2010

More tea, Vicar?

I've been further exploring the idea that tea is mostly produced by estates that exploit cheap labour, in very poor conditions.
With some honourable exceptions, it seems almost universally true.
These days, there's no excuse for ignorance. Not when you can find just about any information.
A simple example from Media Global:
At the Needwood Bio Tea garden in Sri Lanka, a fair trade tea estate, workers are fired after three months of employment, only to be rehired immediately thereafter. In doing so, Needwood does not have to distribute the social benefit provisions guaranteed by full employment, but the company is able to retain nearly all of its workers year-round.
For me, there's no question that my favourite beverage is the result of some very poor practices. The big question, though, is what to do about it?
Fair Trade is of mixed benefit. There's no doubt some workers have benefited, but in all likelihood, the majority have not. It's probably not too cynical to say that various 'middlemen' have sucked most of the extra funds from most Fair Trade transactions.
So, as an example, let's take the "Tea-Tribes" of Assam. Descended from indentured workers - let's face it, slaves - brought in by the British to pick tea, they are amongst the poorest social groups in India.
Fair Trade or any other scheme is not helping them much. The Indian Government appoints a welfare officer to each estate to look after their interests, but of course, it's much cheaper for an estate to just bribe the welfare officer, who are themselves not well paid.
So, I love Assam tea. How do I protect against exploitation?
The only sensible way seems to be to go there. Pay out maybe AUD$5000 in travel expenses, tour some plantations, make a decision which plantation to support, slip a few rupees to some of the workers, and return feeling smug.
But if one does that, there's some uncomfortable thoughts that might intrude in your self-satisfaction:
What about the people working at the bad estates. Surely they are even more in need of my support?
Could I have spent the money doing more for tea workers?
I keep typing, and all I seem to do is come up with more problems, not answers.
Complicated, isn't it?

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