My Stance on Fair Trade

So it’s all well and good that i have a tea blog, but how you may ask, do I justify such conspicuous consumption of a product that often does not provide fair trade for plantation workers? That is an excellent question, and the issue is not lost on my snobbish #1stworldproblems mind when I’m buying tea.

The problem comes down to the fact that slapping a “fair trade” logo on something often doesn’t exactly legitimize that company’s practices abroad. In a recent Times of India interview with U of M anthropologist and postdoc fellow Sarah Besky who’s lived among the Indian, Nepali and Gorkha women workers for many years, she notes, “‘Fair-trade plantation’ may seem like an oxymoron. Plantation workers are not small farmers. They are laborers who, like peasants, live and work on land they do not own.” The example is given of SFTGFOP (“Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”) which often sell for more than $60/cup during first flush, whereas the field workers who pick those delicate leaves earn exactly a $1 for a day’s wages. Such blatant disregard for human rights and a shocking irresponsibility of the West and elsewhere to see to it farm workers who provide or creature comforts are being adequately compensated and taken care of is enough to make me ill and never want to drink another cup of tea.

Through serendipitous coincidence a book entitled “Marginalization of Gorkhas in India: a community in quest of Indian identity” by K. R. Sharma and T.C. Das published for Abhijeet Publications in Delhi, 2011 happened across my desk today.  To briefly explicate some of the complex issues we’re looking at here I offer this synopsis of their retrospective:

“Marginalization of Gorkha tea plantation workers in West Bengal is the replica of marginalization of Indian Gorkha community right from the British days, down to the globalized era of the 21st century…After 1816 at the end of the Anglo-Nepal wars, the British realized their military value, their courage and steadfastness in adversity, stubborness and loyalty. They utilized Gorkhas in their wars of expansion and defence of imperial interests all over the world. Gorkha blood is sprinkled nearly all over the world, wherever the British fought…Once the process of marginalization had been established at Darjeeling tea plantations, the same process was followed later on by the Indian tea planters and managers at [an independent] Darjeeling…The plantation workers had no say in so far as their socio-economic and cultural life was concerned until 1947…Even up to the present globalized era, managers and owners used to think of the tea plantations as their colonies or estates where they ought to be the sole kings and the workers seen as slaves…They had to seek permission of the owners and managers in each and every aspect of their cultural life, including marriage…With the formation of various trade unions, management associations and the introduction of tripartite and bipartite conciliation systems on the industrial relation issues of the tea industry, the [newly dubbed] “tea plantation workers”  became the subject of organized exploitation by the stake holders of the industry.”

So how do I justify it? Well, fortunately for me, I’ve never enjoyed Orange Pekoe, regardless of its tea leaf gradation rating.  That’s the kind of thing my parents would keep in tea bags for far too long in tins on the lazy-susan growing up and I never had a taste for it. When I first got into tea I made it a point to avoid it as well as the big three: Darjeeling, Ceylon and Assam, though lately I’ve taken to Assam, and obviously Ceylon is bit removed from India (not that actual “fair trade” is necessarily happening in Sri Lanka today mind you…).  Obviously we should never take a “fair trade” sticker at face value since their use can’t be universally regulated by internationally vetted human rights organizations. So what is a concerned tea drinker who enjoys black tea to do?

The only real advice I can offer is to checkup on tea vendors and remember that retailers are NOT vendors. There are practically zero retailers that grow tea in the West, and if you know of one that’s any good I would be highly interested. Oftentimes a large tea vendor like Taylors of Harrogate or TeaGschwendner will have a “social responsibility” or “ethics” page attached to their About Us section of their website.  Well, okay, that’s great but as we’ve just seen, it doesn’t really tell us the whole story, right? Probably not. If the information and unrealistic owners-posing-with-smiling-tea-plantation-workers photos on those pages don’t convince you, please write to their corporate office and ask them to elaborate. Companies are in business to stay in business and none can risk losing customers due to their shady business practices being exposed.  The sad truth is though, only the largest tea vendors will go to the trouble to offer any kind of explanation of their corporate practices.  Although admittedly a lot of the tea that comes from China is bought from family-owned farms, I have yet to ever see a tea baring a social responsibility sticker at Chinese markets (again if you have, please let me know so I can make a correction). Mind you, I usually don’t advocate buying Chinese tea that isn’t vetted organic, but it is fun and helps the local economy somewhat. But what about those tiny Nepalese estates like Mangalam, Rani or Bukhail that offer such high quality teas? We’re lucky if hardly any of them have a wikipedia stub.  Although these small batch vendors have enticing flavors and finer quality, based on their lack of fair trade notation, they’re seemingly far less socially conscious (a broad generalization based on my experiences. If you know counterexamples please offer them).


Read more about Besky’s research and watch a short explanatory video here.  Besky recently published a monograph entitled, “The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India” via University of California Press.

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