Tea - fairtrade

World tea consumption is currently increasing by 1% each year, but production is increasing by 2% a year. Oversupply has led to falling tea prices and wages of estate workers. A fair deal for workers is possible, and could be done with intergovernmental cooperation, but there are no signs of that. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Consumers are taking note and fairtrade tea has been growing in popularity over the last decade.

Oversupply

Women picking tea on a hillside plantation.
Image: These women are picking shoots from tea bushes and collecting them in bags on their backs. They prune and pluck the bushes to keep them at the correct density and to encourage the formation of new leaf-bearing shoots which are produced every 7-21 days.

Oversupply has been and still is the prime cause of low wages for workers in production countries. Tea production relies on very cheap labour, where workers are paid low wages that barely cover living costs. The wage in 2000 for India's 1 million tea workers was equivalent to about £1 a day, for example, and in Sri Lanka it was about 90p a day.

Attempts have been made to restrict tea production in the past, such as the International Tea Agreements during the 1930s, where production was restricted to 85% of normal levels. This agreement, however, was only successful until the Second World War rendered it superfluous. Another agreement restricted output in 1970-1 to 94% of normal levels, with moderate success, but producing countries have failed to reach agreements since.

Labelling

Fairtrade labels such as Teadirect have been gaining in popularity, but still only hold a small fraction of the market. It is hoped that such schemes will capture support through increasing sales. They guarantee tea is produced on estates that have certain minimum standards for their workers, such as fair pay, good housing, healthcare, safe working conditions and children's education. However, the prices of these labels have to be reasonably competitive, and they are unlikely to raise wages significantly in a world of overproduction.

Under pressure from consumers, and the fairtrade movement, some of the major packers are also monitoring the conditions on tea estates from which they obtain their supplies. This is a welcome development.