Traidcraft has published a report called ‘The Estate They’re In’, which calls for UK tea companies to trade in a more transparent way. It highlights the deep-rooted challenges in Assam and details what individual companies – and the wider industry – are doing about them.
As a company with a belief in strong, long-term ethical relationships with all our suppliers, based on quality and fair terms of trade, we welcome independent reports like these. They play a huge role in raising the profile of industry-wide challenges and pushing for improvements.
Here are some details about what we’re doing in Assam, how we’re working with others – and our transparent trading plans.
Transparency means sharing public details of everyone you trade with to make a product – and it has played a key role in improving standards in other industries. We’ve taken our first steps towards full transparency for everything we source (including Yorkshire Tea and all Taylors of Harrogate teas, coffees and infusions) by sharing details of our supply base – including all of our Yorkshire Tea suppliers, which you can find here.
Through Taylors Sourcing Approach (TSA) – our model for how we buy our tea, coffee, herbs and packaging – we’ve laid the foundations for openness and transparency throughout our supply chain. It’s a new way of doing business which puts long-term sustainability and strong relationships at the heart of how we buy.
HOW WE BUY - AND HOW IT GIVES US MORE INFLUENCE
“Taylors Sourcing Approach” is based on long contracts – usually three years – with suppliers who share our feelings about high quality, working in a sustainable way, and always improving. It involves a paying a price that rewards quality, mutual investment in environmental and community projects and regular feedback on both how they’re doing, and how we’re doing.
This approach means focusing only on suppliers who we know are really committed to improving standards. In turn, that gives us greater leverage with those suppliers, and a bigger chance to make meaningful improvements to the lives of the people who grow our tea. In Assam, for example, that means asking for stronger requirements for living standards, and creating new ways for managers and workers to resolve issues. There’s more on both of those in the section below called ‘Our work in Assam’.
ASSAM AS A WHOLE
Assam is one of the most challenging regions we source from and we’re sadly all too aware of the wide range of social issues it faces, like outdated employment legislation, low wages, poor standards of housing, sanitation, health, nutrition, and workers who often have little say in matters that affect them directly. There’s good practice and real progress in some places, but there’s much more to do.
We’re committed to improving standards in Assam, and we strongly agree with Traidcraft’s view that the fact it’s such a complex picture isn’t an excuse not to do anything. But it’s important to recognise the context.
The UK buys just 1.3% of India’s total tea output. And many of the challenges faced by tea-growing communities aren’t unique to Assam or to the tea sector. India, particularly rural India, has huge challenges – for example, almost half of the population of India have no toilet.
So a single UK tea company’s ability to bring about positive change is limited. Understanding this context is crucial, because it helps us decide where to focus our efforts and how we need to work to make a difference.
OUR WORK IN ASSAM
All our Assam suppliers are Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified – but in 2016, we commissioned full investigations into living conditions on Assam-based estates which went beyond the RA’s audits. They looked, in particular, at the decency of living conditions.
As a result of these investigations, we’ve focused our trade only on the estates who are committed to improving standards – the ones in which we think there’s the greatest potential for us to make a difference. It’s given us more buying power on those estates, and more leverage on the issues of housing and sanitation.
Our future commercial relationships with our Assam suppliers will contain explicit commitments to improving sanitation standards. The goal is to see each home with its own usable toilet, bathroom and piped water, improving living conditions from the current Plantation Labour Act requirements in line with our own view on minimum decency standards.
We’re also prototyping a new approach that will give tea communities more influence on their estates with the help of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP).
In the past, tea plantation communities have had little say in how estates are run, how housing construction and repairs have been prioritised, what standard of living conditions are provided or how anti-social behaviours can be addressed.
We think there’s a way to change this, so we’ve worked with the ETP to create “Community Development Forums” on four estates. They’re committees which bring managers and members of tea communities together, for the first time, to try and tackle issues that impact everyone.
It might not sound like a major change, but we believe it really is. Working like this empowers the estate populations so they can have a real say in how their estates are run and play their own part in improving life on the estate. The hope is that this way of working can be used as a model for the other estates we buy from in Assam. You can read more about its progress here.
OUR WORK WITH OTHER ORGANISATIONS
The issues in Assam can’t be solved by any organisation working alone, so we’re working with the ETP and others – sharing knowledge, combining resources and gaining more leverage by working together.
We’ve worked with the Rainforest Alliance to strengthen their standards and their effectiveness in auditing living conditions. We’ve also worked with the ETP and other tea brands to support a large-scale gender programme that’s having considerable impact on the lives of over 30,000 young women across 104 tea estates in Assam.
And through our membership of the ETP we’ve engaged the Indian Tea Association (ITA) and others in drawing up a roadmap for a sustainable Indian tea industry. It’s a start, but it’s unlikely to be enough, especially where wages are concerned. That’s going to take government action and major policy reform, to bring about proper livelihood improvement for workers. Many of the challenges cannot be resolved through the actions of tea companies alone.
However, we’re in it for the long haul. We’re committed to Assam – to buying only from suppliers who share our values, to working with them to continually improve standards, and to collaborating with others to bring about wider change.
To see more of our work in Assam and around the world, click here.