Expose of labour abuse brews trouble for ‘slave-free’ Indian tea

  • Labour exploitation
- Post Report, LONDON

Jun 1, 2018-

 Some Indian tea plantations stamped slavery-free are abusing and underpaying their workers, according to new data that experts said could erode consumer trust in ethically-sourced products.

A study from Britain’s Sheffield University, revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday, showed certification schemes by groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are failing to stop labour exploitation.

The report found little difference in the conditions of about 600 tea workers surveyed on certified and non-certified farms in Assam and Kerala, India’s major tea producing regions.All lived below the poverty line and workers on certified farms were often treated worse, facing beatings and sexual violence and having wages and benefits withheld, the study said.

The tea industry in India, the world’s second-largest producer that employs 3.5 million workers, has faced accusations of abusive conditions before but this is the one of the first studies into the certified schemes that lead to higher prices.

“Very bad labour exploitation was endemic ... it affected almost every labourer we spoke to,” said Genevieve LeBaron, a politics professor at the university who led the two-year study.“Our research raises really big questions about the effectiveness of certification overall as a tool to solve labour issues in supply chains.” The researchers assessed 22 tea plantations in Assam and Kerala, including sites certified by major players Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and Trustea.

In response to the study, Fairtrade - which allows companies to use its logo if they guarantee farmers a fair price for crops and an extra premium to spend on community projects - said it could investigate further to ensure the safety of its workers.

“Fairtrade takes these allegations of unacceptable conditions at certified estates in Assam and Kerala very seriously,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement.Rainforest Alliance said it was “very concerned” by the data and committed to improving conditions on tea plantations.

“We agree that more needs to be done to improve tea workers lives and we know that certification is only one way of raising standards, which is why our main remit is to work on social impact projects,” a spokesman for the ETP said in a statement.

Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and the ETP all said they had requested details about the estates surveyed by the university researchers, which would allow them to identify individual plantations and address any complaints of workplace abuses.Trustea did not respond to repeated requests for comment.Major tea companies such as Tata Global Beverages - which owns Tetley—and Twinings—owned by Associated British Foods - said certification schemes were just one part of their efforts to ensure workers in India are treated fairly.

With modern slavery increasingly in the global spotlight and consumers willing to pay more for ethically sourced goods, retailers face rising pressure to ensure that products ranging from tea to chocolate are free from any form of slave labour.

Some food and drink giants are starting to set their own standards but third-party labels like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are still widely seen as important sector benchmarks.Trade experts said the study - which revealed similar findings in Ghana’s cocoa business - could rock the industry.

“It’s a huge blow and really disappointing. It speaks to the fact that just putting a label on things doesn’t automatically make it a good product,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of the US-based non-government organisation Food Tank.

“I have some real concerns about how this could affect other foods and other certification standards because people are not going to know what to do and who to trust.”

Published: 01-06-2018 08:45

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