In fact, after water, tea is the second most popular drink on the planet. Around 45 per cent of all tea grown in the world is exported, and the UK itself buys 16 per cent of the tea that India grows for export.
Supermarkets account for over 80 per cent of all tea bought in Britain, but the people who pick the tea get just one penny from every £1.60 box of teabags sold. Recent research by the charity ‘War on Want’ in conjunction with the trade union Unite shows that workers in northern India earn just Rs1,220 a month compared with an estimated required living wage of at least Rs 3,500 a month. While UK supermarkets have committed to the payment of a living wage to all workers employed by businesses in their supply chains, tea workers employed in India that supply British supermarkets are paid less than half of what would constitute a living wage.
Although India is a major tea producer, the lion’s share of profits goes to large transnational companies. The buying and packing side of the tea supply chain is very concentrated, and this gives the companies involved a high level of power over the prices paid to producers. In the UK, four companies control 65 per cent of the retail market - Tetley (Tata), PGTips (Unilever), Twinings (Associated British Foods) and Typhoo (Apeejay Surrendra Group).
As tea passes through packers and retailers, the final two stages of its journey to the consumer, they capture a massive 86 per cent of the value added, compared to 7 per cent for the producing country. Very little of the profits included in the retail price of a box of tea goes to the tea-producing country.
For Indian tea workers, a lack of food is the major concern. The rise in food prices over the last few years has forced a reduction in the amount of food consumed because workers simply cannot afford to buy what they need. Consequently, there is widespread malnutrition. Indeed, medical studies have found that 60 per cent of the children in Indian tea estates are underweight.
The work of tea labourers is arduous in addition to being low paid and insecure. Tea pickers are on their feet all day with heavy baskets on their backs, often on uneven terrain and in harsh weather conditions. Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases. There is often exposure to pesticides and insecticides.
Working hours in India are long and women labourers note the difficulty of performing cooking, cleaning and child care duties alongside spending eight or more hours in the fields. Time off is very limited. Statutory sick pay or holiday leave entitlements are often ignored by companies, and workers tend to be unaware of these entitlements anyhow.
The giant supermarket chains today wield unprecedented power on a global scale and can dictate the terms at which overseas producers are forced to sell their products, whether tea or any other number of goods. With threats to find new suppliers, they are able to force prices down around the world.
This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Business Secretary Vince Cable will visit India. During his trip, Simon McRae of War on Want says, Cameron will be confronted with the dire poverty that faces millions of Indians and asserts that the UK government has a duty to ensure fair treatment for the workers who supply Britain’s tea by not allowing this exploitation to continue.
McRae is not alone. Many in the UK are now calling for Cameron and Clegg to formally investigate the abuse of workers throughout the world and allow them to seek redress in the UK when they suffer from buying practices that force them into poverty. Instead of the UK government looking the other way, it would do well to heed such calls.