Open call to the United Nations, governments of tea producing countries, tea estates, tea processors, tea exporters and traders on International Tea Day, 21 May 2024 21 May 2024, Kathmandu, Nepal Plantation industry is a product of colonialism linked to the international capitalist system. The large-scale manufacturing enterprises in the industry thrived on three types of neo-slavery that replaced the old form of slavery after its abolition in the British Empire in 1833. The first type is an external indenture system to distant countries such as Mauritius and Trinidad. The second type is a ‘free’ labour migration through the Kangani/Maistri system to comparatively close and easy-to reach destinations: Ceylon, Malaya, and Burma. The third type is an internal indenture system, recruiting migrant laborers from indigenous and tribal groups. Held as a captive and reproducible workforce, the laborers, isolated from the mainstream society, were paid much less than the outside market rate. With the independence movement followed by the trade union movement, plantation workers secured their rights as workers, particularly related to minimum wage and social security. Over time, profitability increased tremendously alongside exponential rise in domestic and international consumption; however, wages saw only a meagre rise, even as productivity increased multiple folds. We express our deep concern that the implementation of hard-won worker-friendly legislation is lacking, and further enactment of progressive legislation has faced resistance, while there has been an increased focus on highly capitalised modes of production and export marketing. Noting that workers and small-scale growers have historically been discriminated against, marginalised, and remain at the bottom of the receiving end of the returns from tea production and trading in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, we call on the United Nations, the governments of tea-growing countries, tea estate owners, and tea trading companies on International Tea Day to enforce minimum wage and social security laws and move towards committing to paying workers a living wage, taking into account inflation and cost-of-living, that will be adequate to sustain a decent standard of living. Industry accountability is paramount, necessitating that brands and employers are held responsible for fair compensation and working conditions for workers and small-scale growers, facilitated by regulatory measures and transparent supply chains. We emphasise that legislative reforms should prioritise addressing structural inequalities, promoting land ownership and homestead rights, and genuinely ensuring occupational safety and health at the workplace, including provisions for maternity and childcare, health benefits, and sanitation facilities. Meanwhile, we take cognizance of the international trends globally, pointing towards laws that are more binding in nature, offering a good opportunity for governments to take advantage and establish much-needed accountability measures through due diligence and disclosures. We recognise the recent trend where capitalists find the upstream part, including the production of tea leaves and their processing, less profitable and are gradually withdrawing from it, instead focusing on branding, packaging, and selling (or exporting), which provide higher profit margins. Consequently, many parts of tea estates are abandoned leaving the workers with no alternative means for survival, many are assigned to workers following the outgrower model, and some portions are converted into tourism destinations, with huge implications for labour. We recognise the formation of cooperatives by workers and small-scale farmers to tackle this problem as a new phase of class struggle. We urge that the repercussions on workers and small growers be carefully considered when adopting any innovative approaches that capitalism offers to save and promote the plantation industry. Taking note that the celebration of International Tea Day aims to draw global attention from governments, private sectors, and citizens towards “Ethical Consumerism and Responsible Business” considering the adverse impact of the “business-as-usual” global tea trade approach on the welfare of workers and growers, we, representatives from tea workers’ unions and associations of small-scale growers in South Asia, would like to express our solidarity with the struggle of tea workers and growers in South Asia. With special acknowledgement of women’s contributions to tea production, from crop to cup, we advocate for a living wage and a fair price for tea leaves for small-scale growers. Realising that workers and small-scale growers are at the bottom of the receiving end in tea value chain and are most discriminated and marginalised, we call upon the United Nations, governments of tea growing countries, tea estates and tea trading companies to respond to the following demands:

1. The Governments of South Asian tea-growing countries, through tripartite negotiation with workers’ unions and tea manufacturers and exporters, must declare the minimum wage for workers in all tea gardens of South Asian countries that should be closely equivalent to the living wage. In addition, tea estates must provide the basic social protection to workers and small growers.

2. The government should ensure that the labour laws are adhered to by the estate management as well as the smallholder tea growers. The social security provisions should be expanded to both formal and informal workers in the sector.

3. The governments must ensure that workers’ demands are genuinely represented in tripartite negotiations (between the workers’ union, producers’ association, and government).

4. Transparency on tea trade is to be promoted, through the strengthening and expansion of auction process, to ensure timely flow of credible information on the performance of the industry. Due diligence and disclosures should be made mandatory in alignments with the international mandatory laws such as the Modern Slavery Act and the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.

5. Receiving fair value for tea workers and small-scale farmers is a human right, and all stakeholders must abide by human rights principles. We urge adherence to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to address the non-adherence to human rights principles in the tea sector, stemming from company activities and business relationships.

6. Deployment of child labour in tea estates and smallholdings that must be put an end to. Human trafficking issues, such as trapping workers in debt and restricting their freedom of movement, must also be addressed and stopped.

7. Any act of human rights violations against plantation workers, including assault by tea estate management, must be immediately stopped, and any such incidents must be investigated for possible human rights abuses.

8. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations should promote a fair value chain from farm to cup, ensuring equity and justice at all levels so that the tea industry becomes economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. The basic rights of workers and small producers, particularly women workers, are to be protected. Consumers are to be sensitised to choose the brands practising fair redistribution of value among supply chain partners.

9. Governments of South Asia must end provisions and practices that discriminate against women by ensuring the implementation of laws designed to protect women workers, such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. Tea estates must meet the specific health needs of women during menstruation, pregnancy, and maternity indiscriminately, and develop a mechanism for policy implementation. They should sign up to the United Nations’ Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) and ensure the implementation of women’s equal right to work as stipulated by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There is an urgent need for governments to ratify the ILO conventions on gender equality, especially the four key equality Conventions – the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156) and the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) – and align domestic labour laws accordingly.

10. Governments must eliminate all forms of violence against women, indigenous, and minority groups involved in tea plantations by strengthening policies and legislations. It is necessary to reinforce a rights-based approach to create an environment where women, indigenous, tribal, and minority groups enjoy their legal rights and equality, free from violence and discrimination based on economic and social status. The government should create an environment where women, tribal and indigenous workers in the plantation industry are empowered to successfully face challenges related to access to higher education, land rights, employable skills, and integration into the decision-making process.

11. Tea estates must ensure that producers are provided with a decent working environment in their gardens, including shelter, health, and education facilities, to the standard defined by the governments. A proper mechanism must be established to assess the condition of working environments, with the mandatory participation of civil society, workers’ unions, and women’s rights organizations in such assessments.

12. Considering the fluctuation in cash crop prices that disproportionately affects small growers, the government must introduce minimum support pricing legislation along with crop insurance to protect the livelihoods of farmers. Further, the pricing models should be progressive and pointing more towards a living income level. Any shift towards innovation in the tea sector, including organic farming and the introduction of technology, shouldpaydueattentiontothepossibledisproportionateimpactonsmallgrowers and workers.

13. Out grower model has to be more meaningful in practice. Under the present model, workers have to bear all the input cost and associated risk with low price provided to them for the green leaves they supply to the plantation companies. The government should ensure that the ownership of the land is given to the workers under the outgrower model either on a permanent basis or on a long-term lease and a reasonable market price is set for the green leaves.

14. The government must provide homestead rights to workers as they have been working in the plantation sector for generations, and provisioning of land would emancipate them from the land-bonded captive labour into land-owning free labour.

15. Workers’ and farmers’ cooperatives should be subsidized to be on a fair competitive level with tea estates, which have long enjoyed facilitative provisions from the state.

16. Ensuring the occupational safety and health of plantation workers is crucial. We condemn the widespread sale and use of highly hazardous pesticides, which are banned in the global North, including the European Union. This practice implies a lesser value is placed on human life in the global South. We, civil society members and organizations working in the tea sector in South Asia, commit to strengthening our coalitions and movements to enhance bargaining power and actively defend and promote workers’ human rights, including living wages, decent working conditions (such as healthy working hours and occupational health and safety), fair employment conditions (such as proper contracts and clear explanation of wages and deductions) and decent housing, healthcare, sanitation, and education.

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