Millions of people around the world depend on tea. Tea has grown from a medicinal crop in China five thousand years ago to being a multibillion pound global industry.

Tea has grown from a medicinal crop in China five thousand years ago to a multi-billion dollar global industry. Just as we are dependent on it to get through a hard day’s work, millions of farmers and workers around the world depend on tea for their living. China has 80 million tea growers, India has an estimated million permanent tea workers and double the number of seasonal tea labourers, while in Kenya tea supports the livelihood of an estimated three million people.

While the bulk of global tea is produced on large plantations or estates, tea is also grown on small plots of land by smallholder farmers who sell their freshly-plucked green leaf to plantations or tea factories for processing into black tea. In India for instance, while the average size of a smallholder tea farm is around 1.25 hectares, the average size of a tea plantation is 250 hectares. 

In the smallholder tea sector, that is significant in countries such as Kenya and Sri Lanka, the main challenges faced by tea growers are low and fluctuating prices for the green leaf they sell and the vulnerability in tea supply chains controlled by large companies. In particular, smallholder farms need additional support to boost their tea productivity and quality so that they can compete with plantation tea that is usually cheaper. In tea estates, the challenges for workers are many, ranging from notoriously low wages, long working hours and a difficult relationship with estate management on whom they are dependent for basic needs such as housing, healthcare, access to water and even education for their children.

Fairtrade certification for tea is open to small farmer organisations owned and governed by the farmers themselves and for tea plantations that comply with stricter Fairtrade Standards for hired labour settings.   Fairtrade Standards for tea include an origin-specific Fairtrade Minimum Price which acts as a safety net against the unpredictable market, ensuring growers get a price that covers their average costs of production. Standards also include payment of the additional Fairtrade Premium of US$ 0.50/kg black tea, for producers to invest in business or community development. 

Global Fairtrade tea sales have increased six-fold since 2004, reaching 12,000 tonnes in 2011-12. In the UK, sales of Fairtrade tea have more than doubled since 2000 and account for roughly 8 per cent of all UK tea sales. In 2011-12, Fairtrade tea sales globally earned an estimated £3.9 million in Fairtrade Premiums for certified farmers and workers, of which 20% has been invested specifically in the education sector.

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