Et Tu, Tea???
So did I, until BBC and others revealed indescribable conditions for the workers at the plantations at India's Assam tea plantations. Shocking.
BBC: The bitter story behind the UK's national drink
Several of Britain's biggest tea brands, including PG Tips, Tetleys and Twinings, have said they will work to improve the tea estates they buy from in India after a BBC investigation found dangerous and degrading living and working conditions. Harrods has stopped selling some tea products in response, and Rainforest Alliance, the ethical certification organisation, has conceded the investigation has revealed flaws in its audit process. The joint investigation by Radio 4's File on Four and BBC News in Assam, north-east India, found workers living in broken houses with terrible sanitation.
This is not just about Britain. Tea from Assam, India is being sold all over the world, including Japan.
Unilever, which owns PG Tips and Liptons, says it takes the issues the BBC has raised seriously, but that progress has been made. However, the company recognises "there is still more to be done to raise standards" and says it is "working with our suppliers to achieve responsible and sustainable practices". Harrods says it has removed Doomur Dullung tea from its shelves in response to the BBC investigation, but noted it hasn't bought any tea from the garden this year. Meanwhile Taylors of Harrogate, which owns the Yorkshire Tea brand, told the BBC the company was "extremely concerned" by the BBC's findings and said it was "investigating as a matter of urgency".
Not a word on these fancy, expensively managed Japanese websites about the recent BBC story.
It is easy to search for Assam Tea, and find all kinds of companies in Japan that features it, like Little Mermaid or Brooks or "Pure Fresh Tea" Tea Club or even Kirin's "Afternoon Tea" - not a word so far about the news about the terrible conditions in Assam, India.
Some products even carry the label of an NGO, that should protect biodiversity.
Rainforest Alliance tries to defend itself here:
The Rainforest Alliance Responds to Allegations Made by the BBC Regarding Tea Estates in Assam, IndiaAs with any tropical crop, tea presents a number of environmental and social challenges. The Rainforest Alliance has been aware of these challenges since we began working in the tea sector in 2007. We take the allegations and assertions made in the BBC File on 4 and other programmes seriously and commend the BBC team for highlighting what remain systemic and deep-rooted issues in the tea sector within regions such as Assam. An investigation into the allegations is currently underway.
Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms are certified to the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard. The SAN is an independent organization consisting of a range of conservation groups including the Rainforest Alliance (www.san.ag). The standards developed by the SAN comply with the Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance.
In India the accredited certification bodies authorized by the SAN to carry out audits include RA-Cert, IMO-India and Indocert. These bodies are accredited by the IOAS, the International Organic Accreditation Service. For the past six years, the Rainforest Alliance has provided training and guidance to the tea sector in Assam on improvements to social and environmental impacts of production, mainly focussed on the rigorous requirements of the SAN standard.
The auditing process in the certification system consists of annual programmed audits and, where necessary, unscheduled audits. When complaints are received, a research audit may be performed. This is an unscheduled inspection that corresponds to a complaint about a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farm or cooperative. The objective is to thoroughly investigate the farm’s compliance with the SAN standards in question. If the farm is not in compliance, it may lose certification immediately or be given a deadline to correct problems identified. As a result of the BBC’s allegations, unscheduled research audits of Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in the Assam region are being carried out by the local certification bodies. If estates are found to be engaged in practices that violate the SAN standard, further action will be taken up to and including certificate termination.
On the issue of underage labor: While employment of young workers is permitted under Indian law between the ages of 14 to 18, the SAN standard has a stricter requirement and minimum age of 15, as well as other requirements to ensure that estates that do employ young workers have additional measures in place to protect them. This is a critical criterion that must be fulfilled for a farm to be certified; if this criterion is breached, the farm would lose its certificate.
With regard to personal protective equipment: Under the SAN standard, farms must provide appropriate personal protective equipment for free, and all workers must wear it when applying agrochemicals. This is also a critical criterion and failure to comply would result in a farm losing its certificate.
On housing and sanitation issues: The SAN standard currently includes multiple criteria and requirements related to the working and living conditions of workers on farms, including the following:
5.14 Housing provided by the farm for permanent or temporary workers living there must be well-designed, built and maintained to foster good hygienic, health and safety conditions. Living quarters must be separated from production areas. The design, size and construction of dormitories, barracks and other housing, type and quantity of furniture, and number and location of sanitary facilities, showers, and washing and cooking areas must comply with applicable laws.
This criterion is not a critical criterion, but a continuous improvement requirement. This means that a certified estate may not be fully compliant with this criterion as long as it is in compliance with all critical criteria, has an overall compliance score of at least 80% across all criteria, and has a compliance score of at least 50% in any one principle, such as principle 5, Fair Treatment and Good Working Conditions for Workers. Non-compliances are recorded in the audit report; they are checked on an annual basis and farms are expected to resolve them over time. Failure to do so leads to a reduction in the certification score, which can in turn lead to farms losing their certification.
Estates usually have programs to continuously improve the housing they provide. The tea sector in Assam, including the farms visited by the BBC, has suffered from severe pressure on costs of production in recent years, caused by low world tea prices coupled with low local tea production as a result of drought, severe pest infestations and periodic flooding. Unfortunately, many estates in the region have had to close down in the face of difficult economic times. Therefore we are working with the tea industry and estates to find solutions that are economically viable while significantly improving conditions on farms.
It is important to note that the January 2016 version of the SAN Sustainable Agriculture Standard – subject to SAN board approval in October 2015 -- includes the same requirement for housing to be clean, safe and healthy, but with an important difference: It will be a critical criterion, meaning that estates will not be able to be certified if this requirement is not met.
Concerning the issue of wage levels: As a certification system, we are advocating for increased attention to the issue and are working with the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance to define a common concept of a living wage that we would use along with the Fairtrade Labelling Organization , UTZ and Social Accountability International. The new 2016 SAN Sustainable Agriculture Standard will push tea plantations to pay a living wage within the framework of the ISEAL Living Wage coalition.
India is the second largest tea producer in the world, and the region faces ongoing challenges in the tea sector. The Rainforest Alliance strongly believes that certification and the training that is part of the process can result in long-term change and improvement for citizens and communities around the world. While not a perfect system – which is one reason why the SAN standard is periodically revised and updated -- certification is transparent and provides a way for workers and concerned citizens to report problems that need to be investigated and addressed. We applaud the companies that manage and buy from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms and the people who work on certified farms, the vast majority of whom are dedicated to improving social and environmental conditions to benefit their lives and those of their families and neighbors. We will continue to support the efforts of these producers and companies and stay with them on their evolving path to sustainability.