The Harsher Truth behind the Harsh World

The global edition of today’s International Herald Tribune (July 22,2009) offers an image of Sri Lankan tea pickers in their scenic tea garden environment. The caption ‘Tea workers’ harsh world’ points to the paradox this beautiful image hides. Mark McDonald’s article goes on to explain that whilst Sri Lanka is the No. 2 Tea Exporter in the world, poverty amongst tea workers is increasing. True. Suggesting though that ‘..the fortunes of the Hill Tamil workers on its many plantations have not kept pace with the industry’s growth’ hides a much more complex reality than first meets the eye. Notwithstanding the superficial comment of the Ceylon Tea Traders’ Association representative that the workers are well cared for and not exploited, there is exploitation, but those responsible are not, as Mr. McDonald implies, the Tea Exporters and Traders in Sri Lanka.

Over the past 3 decades, whilst tea has grown in popularity, prices have recorded a gradual decline in real terms; there has been occasional relief related though to very short term global supply problems, although the real trend is negative. For a herb that has scientifically proven health benefits, is natural, proven to ease stress whilst offering a delicious, refreshing beverage, energising and at the same time calming – that is an astonishing reality. The causes are obvious, even though altogether, they have the appearance of a colonial conspiracy.

The roots of the problem lie in the colonial model of production. It is no secret that Imperial Britain intentionally derived vast and disproportionate benefit from its colonies. And so it was in Sri Lanka – having destroyed the advanced social, economic and political systems of Sri Lanka, and eliminated a large part of the nobility, our former colonial masters carved out a plantation industry that was then populated by ‘imported labour’. The exploitation started there but that was the result of a different attitude in a different time. Seeking redress – as many have done – for injustices committed over a half century ago, can only help our pride, and that does not really help anyone. Least of all the workers in the tea industry.

A little more history – only to better explain the present issues. In colonial times Sri Lanka’s tea crop was taken to London for auction. A finished product when it leaves the factory on the tea estates, it was then transported by ship to London, half a world away, for sale. That was symbolic, for with the tea, the fortunes of the tea industry were also exported – to explain, the most lucrative aspects of tea, as any farmer will confirm, is not in growing and producing, but in packing, branding and marketing. Those benefits, together with our crop, were exported to traders in London.

After independence in 1948 little changed. The auctions in London continued for decades more, and when they eventually ended, the system of tea trading was so calcified that the unfairness the London auctions represented continued, in only slightly modified form. That brings us to the present: same problem, different actors. The British Trading companies are replaced by multinational corporations. The plot thickens though for it takes on a much more sinister form. The colonial era trading companies did not pretend to be something they were not; the multinationals do and that is to the severe detriment of the tea industry.

Clothing themselves in increasingly garish and incredible claims of being models of environmental and social responsibility, their relentless pursuit of market dominance and profit has to be the single most damaging and exploitative feature in the tea industry. The CTTA comment to Mr. McDonald, whilst being ridiculed by the union representative he has also interviewed, is not far from the truth. The Ceylon Tea Industry is unique in that an essentially colonial system persists today, with the estates providing housing, schools, medical, creche, water and other facilities to its workers, and their families. The ‘cradle to the grave’ system does continue – it is colonial but it continues and the workers benefit from that unlike their peers in other industries in Sri Lanka. What is unusual is that the tea industry is expected to do all this whilst most often selling their product at below its cost of production.

That accounts for why Unilever’s Lipton, the largest tea brand in the world, ripped out the heart of its Founder, Sir Thomas Lipton’s vision, and sold off all but a token few of its tea estates. Why – you ask – are tea prices so low? That leads to a complex answer which I shall try to explain simply. Enter any supermarket in Europe, the US or Canada and in the tea category you will see tea brands vying with each other to be the cheapest or to promote the hardest. Normal price often 3 cents per serving, on special at 2 cents. Did the consumer ever ask for tea to be so cheap? And when the story of tea – the careful handpicking, the expertise and tradition in its manufacture – are explained, does the consumer insist on paying only 2, 3 of even 5 cents when a cup of coffee is several times that? The answer is a definite ‘no’.

Price is a tool that the multinational corporations in tea use against their competition. Take for example the entry of tiny, and then insignificant Dilmah, into the Australian market in 1988. When the brand first appeared on the shelves of Australian stores, the dominant brand in that market discount from $1.99 to $1.49 to try and end the fortunes of the upstart from Sri Lanka. Fortunately, tea drinkers recognised the quality of the product and ensured the survival of Dilmah, helping the first ever attempt by a tea grower to market his own produce. 21 years on the unfair and often unethical battering Dilmah takes from its gigantic multinational competition continues in increasingly devious ways but that is the subject of another post.

In steadily growing their control and eventually dominating the once vibrant, much fairer and quality driven tea category, the multinationals commoditised tea and carved out the soul of this healthy, natural, delicious herb. Maybe that should not come as a surprise given the fate even of the great men of tea whose names they hide behind today. Is it logical in this scenario that an industry that was built and continues to operate on the premise of quality, should suffer? It is not only the workers that are suffering in this industry, for with a few exceptions, all the plantation companies are too. Spend a day with the managers of the estates and you will see that the exploitation that Mr. McDonald refers to exists but it the perpetrators are not those that he fingers.

Every Sri Lankan understands his or her commitment to ease poverty in the plantations. The fact is that we are a less developed country, and for reasons one needs to ask the rich nations who are responsible for scuttling WTO, there is poverty in our country and not just on the tea plantations. The plantations are severely complicated by their history but the bottom line is that the fortunes of the plantation workers are necessarily linked to the fortunes of the industry. An exploited industry, denied to a large extent the fruits of its labour, has exploited workers. It is no different for cocoa farmers in West Africa, nor for coffee growers in South America.

What makes all this especially sinister is that the truth is unlikely to be revealed to the consumer – the person in the driving seat. Robed in apparently noble garb – Fairtrade, Ethical Trade, Environmental Responsibility, CSR – the exploiters continue for now unchecked. fairtrade has become a global force for good,  and it is, but in that it is severely limited in its scale, that it funds a PR machinery that has become a victim of its own success, and has no relationship to quality – makes it a foil at best. Fairtrade seeks to pass on the guilt to the consumer – through its fairtrade premium. This is not a problem of money though, for the money is there in tea – it is just that it goes into the wrong pockets.

The solutions are not easy, but there are some hints as to what might be if producers had the possibility of taking their own brands to market and not being forced to rely on multinationals to do that for them. The Dilmah Story and the work of the MJF Charitable Foundation show what producers could do if they had the money to do so. And if the dominant multinational brands allowed them a fair chance at taking charge of their own destiny.

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