Picking tea on a tea farm

About tea

Tea is grown on small plots of farmland owned by individual farmers but is mainly grown on large estates growing acres of tea.

Why do small-scale tea growers need support? 

Small-scale tea growers produce most of the tea in countries such as Kenya and Sri Lanka, but receive low and fluctuating prices for their produce and are the most vulnerable in supply chains controlled by large companies. Increasing supply chain pressures to reduce tea prices are often passed onto them, reducing already-low incomes and pushing them into further poverty. Tea growers earn a fraction of the price tea fetches on the international market and in shops in Europe and the US.

Small-scale farmers face additional challenges as they have to compete with plantation tea. Tea factories and plantations, to whom farmers sell their green leaf tea, pay lower prices to small-scale farmers because their tea may be of lower quality, and because they have additional information on market prices that farmers lack. Small-scale farmers may also lack the necessary agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers or irrigation, to make farm improvements to improve quality and productivity. 

The challenge of securing higher prices for farmers is significant given how pricing works in the tea industry. Tea is unusual among agricultural commodities in that it is sold through auction centres around the world (around 70% of the world’s tea is traded through auctions). Unlike coffee and cocoa, there is no futures market for tea. Although the system appears to be a fair market in which prices are determined solely by supply and demand, a small number of companies dominate sales at each auction. The large companies have such purchasing power that they can often influence the demand, and thus price, of particular qualities and types of tea. Brokers and buyers have sometimes colluded to influence prices, lowering the price received by farmers; in 2005, the situation became so bad in Kenya that the National Chamber of Commerce called, unsuccessfully, for the elimination of tea auctions. What this means is that middlemen can take a large slice of the price paid by the factory for the growers’ tea.

What about tea pickers and workers? 

Globally, most tea is grown on commercial plantations, also known as estates or tea gardens, that employ workers to pluck leaves, fertilise, weed and prune tea bushes and maintain the huge tea estates. Most estates also operate their own tea factory where more workers are employed to process green leaf into ‘made’ tea. Wages on tea plantations are notoriously low, usually around the national legal minimum but rarely constituting a decent, living wage, and often providing too little to feed families adequately. Many workers lack job security or representation by trustworthy, effective and independent trade unions.

Tea is a very labour-intensive product to grow: labour costs account for around half the costs of production, and 75 per cent of those are the cost of plucking. ‘Pluckers’ undertake physically demanding tasks, often enduring back pains as well as exposure to pesticides and extremes of weather. Discrimination and the sexual harassment of women workers, who often comprise the majority of plantation workers, are widespread, and women often work longer hours for lower wages than men. 

Workers in the tea sector, much like in other sectors dominated by plantations, have little power to voice their opinion to estate management or negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. This imbalance in power between workers and management has left workers in successive cycles of poverty, given the limited alternative employment options in these countries. 

How does Fairtrade support tea growers and workers? 

Fairtrade works with both small-scale tea farmers and workers on tea plantations. There are currently more than 335,270 tea farmers and 55,140 tea workers participating in Fairtrade. Fairtrade Standards are designed to improve employment conditions and protect the rights of workers on plantations and to support members of small-scale organisations in gaining more control within the tea supply chains and increase their incomes.

Fairtrade Standards for tea act as a safety net against the unpredictable market, ensuring growers always get a price that covers their costs of production. Fairtrade producer organisations receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price which is origin-specific – currently $2.40/kg in Sri Lanka, $2.00-$2.20/kg in India and $1.70-$1.80/kg in Kenya – and a Fairtrade Premium of $0.50/kg of made tea, paid to the producer organisations for community and economic investment.

Fairtrade has specific standards for plantations that support worker organisation and representation to negotiate with management and progress towards living wages. Workers need strong organisations to represent them in these negotiations. Our new Hired Labour Standard greatly strengthens workers’ Freedom of Association in practice. We also changed the rules for the Fairtrade Premium, so workers can spend up to 20 per cent of the Premium on cash or in-kind benefits, or up to 50 per cent if the majority are migrant workers. And the Standards now include quality requirements and guidance for workers’ on-site housing.

The Fairtrade Premium for tea is significant, £3.9 million paid directly to producer and hired labour organisations in 2020. This money is especially important for workers who chose to invest in improving workers’ access to health, education, small loans and better housing. Read more about the difference Fairtrade is making in three tea organisations in Malawi.

Working together to address low wages in the tea industry

Fairtrade has long been championing and advocating for industry-wide change in the tea sector to address low wages. Working towards a living wage has been an aspiration within the Fairtrade Standard for years. Our Standard for Hired Labour states that plantations must start off paying the legal national minimum wage then progress towards a living wage. 

But there are several obstacles to taking concerted action on the issue of living wages. Among the challenges to achieving this are the lack of a globally agreed definition or benchmarks for living wages for agricultural workers in various countries. Then there is the question of how to move companies towards paying a living wage without pushing businesses that pay them out of the market. We need to make sure plantations can raise wages and stay in business, otherwise there is a risk of workers losing their jobs and ending up in a far worse situation. Without solutions to these questions – and even though workers have been benefitting from Fairtrade Premiums for education, healthcare, housing and community projects – they have not seen enough progress on wages. 

In 2013, Fairtrade International, in collaboration with other partners started concerted work on living wages. In doing so, it commissioned the experts Richard and Martha Anker to adapt their method of calculating this wage to the needs of an agricultural worker (and of his/her family), running four pilot studies and working with local teams in South African wine grape farms, Dominican Republic banana plantations, Malawian tea plantations, and Kenyan flower plantations. The result was an assessment of expenses based on a three ‘basket’ scheme: food and nutrition costs, decent housing and other essential needs. After living wage benchmarks have been set, the next step is to tackle how companies can progress from paying legal minimum wages to paying a proper living wage. The idea is that workers can themselves negotiate for better pay and working conditions. They therefore need to be well represented by trade unions and strong organisations – a point that is well recognised in Fairtrade’s new Standard for Hired Labour. Progress towards living wages is a long journey and needs change across the sector but Fairtrade is committed to using our platform to drive this change.
Alongside this work on setting wage benchmarks and the promotion of wage bargaining, Fairtrade is also an active participant in industry initiatives such as Tea 2030, a global project to build a sustainable tea industry for the future, so that better wages become a commitment for everyone along the tea supply chain.