As a veritable tea addict, slurping down at least six cups a day, this BBC News exposé was very disturbing viewing. Most of the biggest selling tea brands in the UK are owned by major companies in the Assam Region of India.
As I have discussed in my previous blogs about the city of Kalkata, the habit of tea drinking is massively popular in India, but what I have discovered is that the teacup manufacturers who throw thousands of clay cups a day to keep up with popular demand showcased in that programme, live a life of comparative luxury in comparison to the people who work on the tea plantations.
Twinings,Yorkshire Tea, Harrods and Fortnum and Masons all source tea from the same estate and the owners of this and similar plantations are supposed to provide adequate housing for their workers and also give every worker access to working and sanitary toilet facilities .
This areas of the tea gardens where people live are called The Labour Lines and consists of single storey dwellings where tea growing families are housed. The BBC crew meets one lady who shares her house with Six families and has not had a working toilet for.... Wait for it... Thirty six years! She is forced to attend to nature in the fields amongst the bushes.
The houses are not maintained and many have leaking roofs and cracks in the walls. Rain water is captured in cooking pots to stop flooding. Despite assurances that repairs will be made, the gentlemen featured had waited ten years for repairs to his wall.
A small packet of tea sold at Fortnum and Mason, weighing just 200g costs the equivalent of 750 rupees. This is a week's wages for the people who live there and they are outraged by the disparity. Daily pay is $1.75, which is about £1 . This is justified,due to the fact that permanent workers are supposed to be provided with permanent homes, but as we have seen, these are far from adequate.
One man's septic tank is overflowing so that a pool of vile goo surrounds his fresh water pump, another lady's roof is so filled with holes that the light shining through from outside resembles a constellation of stars!
The Estate Manager appears to be in denial as he states they are improving, mentality, hygiene, literacy and living conditions. This almost glacial speed appears to be reaping no dividends for the householders.
What is worse is that some of the brand leaders such as Unilever( who supply Liptons and PG Tips) pride themselves on marketing their tea citing the ethical practices of their brands. The plantation make liars of them, when they state they are "Making a difference with every cup" and Tartar the owners of Tetley Tea say they are " committed to the fair and ethical treatment of all the people across it's supply chain"
From plantation to plantation the stories are eerily similar, Cesspools criss -cross the living areas. Tea workers are open to much exploitation and as such The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 was put in place so that the welfare of workers could be checked on . Free public access is in place by statute to Labour lines, but Management roar in with a jeep and demand the BBC crew leave as it is private property. Brandishing the act , but unwilling to create a disturbance the crew agree to speak to him in his office whereupon they are to all intents and purposes held prisoner as, they claim, the estates are victims of militant behaviour. The BBC may be radical at times, but I doubt they intend to promote violence or affray.
The association who represents the tea companies said all the right things about investigating the case studies, but there are more issues other than housing and sanitation. Juveniles of only 14 are working in the fields illegally. UN rules state no child under 15 should be working full time.
Far worse is the flagrant ignorance of laws controlling the use and safety of pesticides and other chemicals. Repeatedly people spray without protective boots, suits and head coverings, masks and gloves. There are, according to bosses, insufficient supplies.
The particular chemical the crew witnesses being used can cause poisoning if ingested, inhaled or it is absorbed through the skin, respiratory problems, numbness in the extremities or even Death can result.
Worst of all is the examining of testimony of hospital doctors about the level of malnutrition amongst children living on tea plantations. It is higher than that of the other poor and disenfranchised in India, despite the "Promise" of guaranteed housing. Poor pay combined with atrocious conditions mean that any infection contracted has a much more catastrophic effect on smaller malnourished bodies.nThe fact that homes are provided allows for tea workers to be paid even below India's minimum wage, infant mortality rates far outweigh any perceived benefit of the housing as it is appalling and the tea companies appear to be doing little or nothing to rectify matters.
Nowhere in the film was there evidence of repairs being made, only pacification and mollification.
I am not normally one to suggest direct action, but perhaps it might be time for us to demand our tea companies put their money into actual assistance rather than ethical slogans that have no empirical evidence supporting them?
Apart from the ethical implications, surely human sewerage "fertilising" the plants in a country where illness from water born diseases is more common, is enough reason to just be more aware of how our tea is sourced and supplied. I am sure the drying and brewing kills germs, but if the conglomerates will not do it independently, we should try to at least encourage action to prevent the spread of polio and dysentery and other preventable diseases like tetanus and TB
Toilets for Tea... We drink enough in the UK to be able to have paid for millions of conveniences and miles of corrugated metal and plastic for roofing! The premium retailers have a role to play in this too. If "well to do" cups are being filled in direct result of deprivations and disease, we should make sure the stores are aware of our distaste, no matter how refreshing that delight in a mug is.