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After water, tea is the most popular drink in the world with 70,000 cups drunk per second. Like cocoa, sugar and coffee, tea is in many ways a vestige of colonial times. Globally, perhaps as many as 50 million people are involved in the tea industry in many of the world’s least developed countries. Tea is usually grown on plantations and less typically by small scale farmer cooperatives.
Although market prices for tea have reached historical highs in 2009-2010, absolute prices are level with or below where they were 30 years ago. At the same time, producers face significant increases in living costs due to food price inflation, reduced crops/yields and depreciation of local currencies versus the dollar.
Tea producer crops and yields are also a concern as weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable with drought conditions reducing production in recent years.
Although labour and pay conditions for tea workers are often regulated by government, historically much tea work is considered unskilled and thus paid at minimal levels. The plight of plantation workers is a well-known issue in many tea-producing countries like India, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Tea workers living on tea estates often depend on the owners for basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, utilities and access to water and primary education for their children.
However, poor profitability over the past 30 years has eroded investment in infrastructure and led to cost cutting measures. Basic needs are often unmet leaving workers and their children few alternatives but to continue the cycle of dependency and vulnerability.
An increasing number of tea companies and small farmer organizations are working to attain Fairtrade Certification to ensure growers and workers are treated more fairly and receive decent wages greater than or in line with legal minimum wage.
Tea workers from Fairtrade certified estates and small holder organizations also benefit from a Fairtrade Premium which is currently paid at 50 US cents per Kilo or $1.10 per Kilo depending on the tea grade. Globally in 2009 over $6m in Fairtrade Premium was paid directly to Fairtrade tea worker committees, for community benefit (schooling, health care, community resources etc.).
The FAIRTADE Mark also helps tea producers gain access to new markets. For example, a group of tea producers in Malawi found great success following the Fairtrade Tea Price Review in 2007. Read more here (PDF).
Fairtrade has established standards in tea production for both plantations and small producer organizations.