Low Wages and Tough Choices for Assam Tea Pickers

Tea Picking in India

Poverty is insidious in how it affects so many areas of life for those who live below the poverty line. Your priorities and worries are very different when you have no idea where your next meal will come from or how you will get medical help for your children. Fairtrade seeks to allow people to work their way out of poverty. It goes beyond handouts and allows the poorest workers access to a fair share of the income from the sale of the goods that they contribute to growing or making.

However, international supply chains are complex and can allow those in positions power to exert unfair influence or control over the lives of others. A recent report in the Guardian (Guardian Report: How poverty wages for tea pickers fuel India’s trade in child slavery) showed just how very low wages can actually lead parents to sell their children to child traffickers to simply make ends meet. An appalling position for any parent to be put in. The level of wages paid to tea pickers in Assam is set by the tea growers as a collective bargaining agreement but still works out at around £1 a day – low even by India’s low wage economy standards.
All tea that comes from Assam is subject to these issues so whether it is supermarket own label, or certified by the Rainforest Alliance, Ethical Tea Partnership or by Fairtrade International then these basic wages apply.

So is Ethical Superstore is clearing the shelves of Assam tea?

No – well at least not yet. The advice from organisations like Oxfam and Fairtrade is that engagement and continued trade with the Assam tea industry and growers is more likely to result in better living standards for tea pickers than boycotting the region and taking our trade elsewhere. You can read the Oxfam study from May 2013 here and Fairtrade Foundation’s response to the Observer article here. The issue is complex and needs more than just change from Western businesses and NGOs – the Indian national and state government clearly have a role to play in setting a minimum wage that people can actually live on.

We believe that buying on Fairtrade terms will deliver better long term outcomes as all workers benefit from the additional premiums that are paid above and beyond the basic wages paid via the collective bargaining agreements. However, we cannot be complacent and will keep the situation under review to make sure that there is clear, demonstrable progress towards a fairer method setting pay across the Assam tea industry. We will also support organisations like Equal Exchange who are seeking to pack products in India so that more of the value of goods stays in the region.

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