The TRF investigation found that workers were paid an average of $1.54 daily after debt repayments, salary advances, and fees. © Palani Mohan/Getty Images)
The TRF investigation found that workers were paid an average of $1.54 daily after debt repayments, salary advances, and fees. © Palani Mohan/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka tea plantations under investigation for labour rights

Sri Lankan tea plantations in the central highland district of Nuwara Eliya are being investigated by the Rainforest Alliance and the Fairtrade Foundation for abusing labour workers' rights and breaching ethical label standards.

Investigations are underway, confirmed The Rainforest Alliance and the Fairtrade Foundation, and said that if plantations are found to be in violation of the ethical label’s standards their certification will be suspended or cancelled.

The action follows revelations by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) that plantation workers' wages were deducted without consent, and workers were paid an average of $1.54 daily after debt repayments, salary advances, and fees. On average, 74% wage deductions were made at Fairtrade-certified states, and 65% of wages were taken from workers at Rainforest Alliance-certified estates, according to the TRF .

Giri Kadurugamuwa, Sri Lankan consulting programme co-ordinator for the Rainforest Alliance, told SM: “The Rainforest Alliance is currently working with the authorised certification body responsible for the audits of these estates (NEPCon). Once these investigative audits conclude we will post the results online.”

A spokesperson from Fairtrade International told SM: “Fairtrade believes that all farmers and workers deserve to earn a decent living for what they produce. We are conducting a review of our tea standard this year and have also commissioned a living wage benchmark for Sri Lanka. Defining what a living wage would be in the region is urgently needed to bring stakeholders to the table to work towards more sustainable livelihoods for tea workers.”

The TRF investigated tea estates across the central district, and gathered seventeen worker payslips from nine Rainforest-certified tea estates, six of which were also certified by Fairtrade.

Estate managers and workers revealed to the TRF that quota policies were implemented across the tea estates sanctioning workers by halving daily wages when they picked less than 18kg a day or arrived fifteen minutes late, according to the TRF report. The deductions were in direct violation of labour laws, TRF investigations found.

Tea giants, Unilever and Tetley (owned by Tata Global beverages), have also issued investigations to follow up on the findings, according to TRF. Transparency in the two company’s supply chains increased after their suppliers were made public after pressure from the “Who picked my tea?” campaign by Traidcraft Exchange, following a similar investigation that revealed poor working conditions in certified and uncertified plantations in India.

A spokesperson from The Rainforest Alliance added: “The Rainforest Alliance is continuously working to improve its certification programme. We have recently taken steps to increase the assurance mechanisms of audits including increased and regular unannounced audits. We are currently developing a new certification program and standard (following our recent merger with UTZ) which will be published later this year.”

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