Tea workers at a plantation in Golaghat, India  © Photo by Hafiz Ahmed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Tea workers at a plantation in Golaghat, India © Photo by Hafiz Ahmed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tea companies ‘failing to address’ human rights abuses in supply chains

Tea plantations supplying firms including Tesco, Unilever and Marks & Spencer are abusing workers’ human rights, it has been claimed. 

Non-profit organisation, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), has claimed workers on tea plantations across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda are receiving unfair wages, and suffering from “inhumane” living standards and inadequate health and safety conditions.

It further accused plantation owners of harassing and intimidating staff, including dismissing workers for any involvement in union or protest activities.

The accusations stem from analysis of 70 cases of human rights violations in 2022.

Its report, Boiling point: Strengthening corporate accountability in the tea industry, specifically identified 16 brands and retailers which buy or have bought from estates where 47 of the 70 alleged human rights abuses occurred.

These well-known brands include Ahmad Tea, Bettys & Taylors, ekaterra, Goodricke, James Finlay, Jenier, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Plus, Ringtons, Starbucks Teavana, Tesco, Tetley, Twinings, Typhoo and Unilever.

The remainder of abuses occurred on estates not listed in the public domain, therefore their buyers are unknown.

BHRRC said: “Tea companies are failing to address human rights abuses on plantations,” and that “lack of supply chain transparency across the sector means companies cannot be held accountable for rights violations.”

The report highlighted a number of specific allegations of worker abuse, including one where as many as 400 workers and 2,000 of their family members faced an “acute food crisis” due to not being paid or receiving food rations for nearly a month at a plantation in Bangladesh. 

Workers at three different plants across India claimed they had been attacked by leopards. Elsewhere, people claimed elephants had damaged the houses of eight workers in two separate incidents in India, in which no action was taken by management to protect workers.

But according to the BHRRC the allegations it recorded are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg”, because human rights policies often don’t translate to reality.

BHRRC labour rights researcher, Kate Jelly, said: “Although tea companies recognise the entrenched human rights challenges within the tea supply chain, they are failing to take sufficient action to address them.

“They appear to have overall policy commitments to human rights, but there is limited evidence on how these commitments are implemented in practice and a general failure to mitigate adverse human rights impacts which are compounded by their purchasing practices.” 

One particular criticism was an over-reliance on certification standards such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade to “guarantee” protection of rights.

Jelly said: “Addressing human rights abuses in tea supply chains starts with companies being transparent about where they are sourcing their tea from. Workers have a right to know who is profiting from the tea they are picking – and be able to identify where they must go to voice any grievance.”

She added: “Companies who have not disclosed their supply chains cannot claim to have conducted adequate human rights due diligence, nor to have taken the necessary steps to provide remedy for abuses. They must acknowledge their ultimate responsibility for driving change in a sector riddled with human rights violations.”

All firms contacted responded to the allegations, with the exception of Plus. And all but one that responded (ekaterra) said they had or would be investigating the cases brought to their attention.

Opaque supply chains enable firms to “distance” themselves from human rights abuses, Jelly said, however, despite the allegations, the companies that disclosed and responded “are the industry leaders in terms of transparency”. 

The report added: “Human rights abuses are taking place on tea plantations across the globe, with workers toiling to make the tea we drink suffering from unfair wages, inhumane living standards and poor health and safety conditions.”

It concluded: “Conditions will only improve if more money reaches the bottom of the supply chain – and at least some of this additional money reaches workers in the form of higher wages and benefits, such as adequate housing. Tea buyers are not free from the economic challenges faced by the rest of the industry, but no other single actor in the supply chain has greater power to effect change.”

In response to the allegations, Twinings said: "We became aware that certain plantation companies were challenging the decision of the Wages Board in March 2022, whilst carrying out Twinings Community Needs Assessments on Bogawantalawa’s tea estates.” As such, it investigated the issue and confirmed the five producers involved have since agreed to comply with the new minimum wage legislation.

James Finlay, meanwhile, said it had investigated an allegation that James Finlay Kenya Ltd employee attempted to run over a worker due to their involvement in union action. The firm said: “Having undertaken a thorough investigation into the allegation, JFKL is confident that there is no foundation to this claim and that this will be confirmed by the Scottish courts in due course.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks said it is working with Rainforest Alliance and the Ethical Tea Partnership to better understand the circumstances behind the allegations, while Tesco said it is working with its suppliers for the same purpose, and added it will suspend sourcing from suppliers that don’t provide “satisfactory engagement”.

In February, a BBC investigation claimed that women were being forced into sex to gain work across tea plantations in Kenya used by the likes of Unilever and James Finlay, sparking further investigations. 

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