The high price of tea

I’ve been researching all week for the final ‘love notes’ for the immersive theatre piece myself, Bea Goodwin have been producing with the amazing Letter of Marque Theatre. These are little notes within the piece for the audience to stumble upon with some insights into the history of tea, tea reading and tea production.

It’s hard to talk about tea with out acknowledging its dark history- opium wars, slavery. But what’s actually really important that we talk about, is that life on tea estates or plantations in India has not changed significantly, and tea pluckers, who are mostly women, still work under horrific conditions, for prices so low they are often tempted by traffickers by notions of a better life, and then are kidnapped into a life of slavery in India’s cities.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were advised to not visit a tea estate while touring India, after a 2015 BBC investigation into labour conditions which included blocked toilets, cramped housing, no clean water, no maternity leave for women, plucking tea for 8 hours hours a day until they give birth. They have a noticably higher child mortality rate than most of the country, and often have their uterus’ removed after sagging from carrying tea on their stomachs for long hours.

The plantation only gives workers the benefits of their food rations if they work 12 days straight, and so sick workers often keep working to make sure they can still feed their families, though it’s often not enough and women will routinely skip lunch and dinner to make sure their childen can eat.

Workers often have to borrow money to pay doctors fees from the plantation, which put them in a debt cycle.

Accorsing to an expose in the Observer in 2014, the estates were supposed to pay a minium wage for unskilled workers of 169 rupees a day ($2.30), but worked out leniancy with the government claiming they cannot pay those wages or the full food rations and housing that the workers are promised in the 1951 Plantation Act. They paid $1.50 instead. This is despite tea being a multi million global industry. Tata, Tetley’s parent company made 11 milllion in 2014.

As such, the poverty of workers makes them suspectible to traffickers, who target young girls who they promise a better life and jobs in the city, often plying parents with the same lies, before kidnapping their daughters into a life of slavery as maids in Delhi.

Since the Observer expose in 2014, there have been efforts to add transparency to the tea industry. Industry watch guards such as Fairtrade and The Ethical Tea partnership (who somehow missed the trafficking going on with at estates Tata) have stepped up monitering. In 2019, Unilever – who owns PG tips- have declared all of their brands slave-free, and many tea companies now have a traceable line of who picked their tea, at

However, a recent landslide revealed that terrible conditions still persist in some tea estates,

“…A recent landslide in Kerala has thrown light on the living condition of tea estate workers in the state. A massive landslide trapped over 70 people in Pettimudi of Munnar in Idukki district. As of August 11, the death toll in the Munnar landslide stands at 52. The workers, most of whom were said to be from Tamil Nadu, were living in ‘layams’ — cramped single-room quarters, all stuck to each other, thereby causing severe damage. 

The living condition is no different for workers in the Western Ghats region in adjoining Tamil Nadu. The tea estate labourers say that they work for long hours, toiling under rain and sun, to earn a meagre living. The labourers who are mainly women also complain of many health issues as they have to carry huge loads of tea leaves in a basket on their back, by tying it to their stomachs…

In the monsoon, life gets even more difficult. “Leeches fall on our heads and start sucking our blood but we are still not allowed to take a break or given a leave. Even if an employee faints, they need to get back to work after regaining consciousness. They will not even be lenient for a few minutes,” she added.

…The workers say that the mishaps continue but the government only provides them temporary compensation and most of them are forced to continue their lives in the same estates.

“‘Modern-day bonded labour’: The inhuman work conditions of TN tea estate workers”, 13 August 2020

From the Business & Human Rights Resource Center.

It’s hard to know where to start, but we can support the The Ethnical Tea Partnership- whose members, below, are supposed to be accountable.

Bigelow Tea

China Mist Tea Company


Fortnum & Mason


Starbucks Teavana


Tesco PLC

Tetley Limited

Unilever- PG tips, Lyons, T2

The Republic of Tea

R. Twining & Co. Ltd.


Whittard of Chelsea

Yogi Tea


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