Several major news sources, including the BBC and CNN have recently released investigative stories covering the terrible working conditions faced by employees on tea plantations in India. As it turns out, the fine teas we purchase from well-respected companies sometimes have very dark and troubling origins.
Ironically, many people choose to drink green tea for its many health benefits, not realizing that the same cup of tea could be jeopardizing the health and well-being of people in another country.
The news of human rights violations perpetrated by tea plantation owners often comes as a shock to most consumers, but unfortunately these reports are often all too true. While many companies may present idyllic photographs of healthy, smiling workers picking tea leaves in sunlit gardens, the reality is often the complete opposite.
In many cases, the people who work on tea plantations live right there in the grounds. Tea companies are responsible for providing their workers with adequate housing and sanitation, yet during their investigations, reporters witnessed workers living in squalid and unhealthy conditions.
They spoke to people living in lean-to shacks, or in huts with leaky roofs. Toilet facilities were overused at best, and completely nonfunctional at worst, with septic tanks overflowing and sometimes spilling waste right back into the water sources used by the workers.
These unhealthy conditions mean that workers are often ill and malnourished. Local hospitals report treating many patients for pneumonia or other infections picked up while living and working in these terrible conditions. And many of the patients they treat are children.
So, if you are putting two and two together, you’ll realize that there are children working on tea plantations.
What Are Tea Companies Doing About This?
One good thing to emerge from this reporting is a public outcry against these unethical business practices. Reporters and consumers have turned up the heat on tea companies, demanding that they answer for these violations.
Of course, some plantations are doing a better job than others. But sometimes the issues are so extensive that it may take years for them to be corrected – and indeed one representative interviewed on camera admitted that the problems were piling up too quickly for them to address adequately.
Unfortunately, it looks like the companies behind some of the healthiest teas we buy may be responsible for some of the unhealthiest conditions for workers.
So, Are There Any Companies That Treat Their Employees Ethically?
Thankfully, yes there are. Bigelow, one of the largest producers and distributors of tea does seem to do a much better job than some of the other large producers when it comes to treating their workers with dignity and respect.
Other companies known to take good care of their employees include Tazo, The Republic of Tea, Numi, Hampstead, Dragonfly, Clipper, Teaology and Hambleden Herbs. Most of the teas produced by these companies are Fair Trade certified, meaning they have met regulations for both sustainable farming and working conditions.
Several tea companies have also joined together to form the Ethical Tea Partnership, which works to improve all aspects of the tea workers’ lives, including health, sanitation, discrimination, safety, and poverty prevention.
I Don’t Like This. What Can I Do?
A little bit of research can go a long way. Take a few moments to look into your favorite brands of tea, and see what the companies say about their workers. Cross-reference this information with news reports to see whether you find any contradictions.
A good place to start is by looking for Fair Trade certified teas, as companies participating in this program must meet certain human rights conditions.
It doesn’t take much effort to make more ethical choices when you shop. You can improve your own health by drinking green tea, but you can also help improve and sustain the health and well-being of others by shopping for Fair Trade brands.