Sustainability issues in the tea sector: a comparative analysis of six leading producing countries

Sanne van der Wal, June 2008, 110 p. (pdf)

, by Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)

Tea is the second most popular drink in the world, after water. For a number
of developing countries it is an important commodity in terms of jobs and
export earnings. Tea production is labour intensive and the industry provides
jobs in remote rural areas. Millions of livelihoods around the world depend
on tea picking and processing. However, as with many other agricultural
commodities, real primary producer prices have fallen dramatically over the
last three decades. Low prices are affecting the sustainability of the tea sector,
with working conditions and the livelihoods of plantation workers and smallscale
farmers in tea producing countries under pressure. Meanwhile, tea trade
and distribution is dominated by a few international companies that benefi t
from stable retail prices.

In this report, SOMO is presenting for the first time ever a more detailed
and comparative analysis on social, economic and ecological conditions in the
tea sector in 6 of the most important tea-producing countries: India, Sri Lanka,
Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya and Malawi. The research is based on an extensive
fi eld study of civil society organisations in these countries, thus providing
a unique perspective on this sector. The report also presents an overview
of trade, production and stakeholders in international tea supply chains, and
makes recommendations to various stakeholders for improving conditions,
particularly for plantation workers and tea smallholders the most vulnerable
in the tea industry.

The study found that working conditions for pickers are often poor, with
low wages, low job and income security, discrimination along ethnic and
gender lines, lack of protective gear and inadequate basic facilities such
as housing and sometimes even drinking water and food. At the same time
there is no possibility for tea plantation workers to improve working
conditions because trade unions are ineffective or absent and/or are not
representing them because most of them are temporary workers. While tea
production by smallholders is growing worldwide, their situation is often
problematic because the prices they are paid for fresh tea leaves tend to be
below the cost of production, among other factors. The sector’s environmental
footprint is considerable, with reduced biodiversity as the result of habitat
conversion, high energy consumption (mainly using logged timber) and a
high application of pesticides in some countries.

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