A cup of tea can be anything but relaxing for the women picking the leaves on plantations in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Kenya or China.
Even though tea is a billion-dollar global industry that provides an income for tens of millions of growers – and twice as many seasonal workers – pay can be low and conditions poor when the work takes place in rural areas and the labour force is often itinerant or dependent on employers for living quarters.
Women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation when wages fall or prices are poor, having next to no power in a supply chain controlled by large companies.
Despite having so little power, women make up a significant proportion of the agricultural labour industry. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation women make up almost half of all agricultural workers yet produce between 60 and 80 percent of the world’s food supply. The problem is they make up only 10 to 20 percent of landowners in developing countries.
Fairtrade is working with tea estates and workers to incorporate gender equality into its programs.
Rebecca is mother to a toddler, Precious, and works at a tea plantation in Malawi. Thanks to the Fairtrade Premium, she received a bursary to continue her education into high school. But the community has also hired its own teachers and sunk boreholes so workers can access fresh water.
“Fairtrade is precious to me,” Rebecca says. “I look to Fairtrade as a special thing because from the word go, I grew up and was selected for secondary school. Fairtrade came to my rescue because Fairtrade paid for my school fees.
“I’d like to appeal to tea lovers […] to consider buying Fairtrade tea, because it’s the only way students from challenged families like myself can benefit.
“These things help us.”
Rebecca hopes to one day become an engineer or electrician, but for now she has a job that doesn’t force her to work excessive hours away from her child, and on a plantation that provides protective equipment for workers.
Those conditions should be rights, not privileges, but for many disempowered female labourers in the tea industry a safe place to work with a limit to daily hours is a pipe dream.