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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Local tea drinkers called on to end industry slavery

A Canberra charity is calling on Australia’s nine million tea drinkers to leverage their consumer power for a liveable wage for tea workers and to prevent practices of modern slavery in Assam, India, the world’s largest tea growing area.

The campaign

#Something for Slavery is a campaign by Project Didi, a charity founded by Canberra business owners Fiona Toll, Leonie Keogh and Sarah Bartram during their time living and working in Nepal. The campaign explicitly calls on tea drinkers to write or email Melbourne-born premium tea company, T2, and demand changes in their supply chain wages.

Global anti-poverty charity, Oxfam, has found workers on plantations in Assam receive around AU$0.06 per 100g of bagged black tea but an increase of just 15 cents per 100g could dramatically improve workers’ quality of life.

Project Didi board member Chloe Spackman said T2 sold 100g of their Assam black tea for $12, while workers in Assam earned as little as AU$2.80 a day, which was not enough to meet their basic needs.  

“We’re urgently calling on T2 to right this imbalance and ensure workers receive a wage that allows them to live with dignity and safety,” Ms Spackman said. 

T2’s influence

Ms Spackman said the campaign had specifically called out T2 because it was a boutique company with thoughtful and engaged customers.

“Given the company started in Australia, we think it has huge influence,” Ms Spackman said. 

Co-founded by Maryanne Shearer in 1996, T2 generated $57 million in the 2012/2013 financial year, before it was purchased by international giant, Unilever.

At the time of sale in 2013, Ms Shearer said in a statement that Unilever had pioneered sustainability in the industry.

Unilever president for refreshment, Kevin Havelock, said Unilever’s sustainable living plan had led the tea industry to adopt sustainable agriculture practices and had trained some 450,000 smallholder farmers in their tea supply chain for that end.

“T2 have been working with Fairtrade since 2009 on their English breakfast tea, so we see the basis of a common philosophy here,” Mr Havelock said.

Complexity within the supply chain

Before you can sip on your cup of tea, it has passed through many stages.

Unilever doesn’t own any tea plantations in Assam; its product is sourced from around 300 suppliers, most of which are large, private plantations.

Ms Spackman said the supply chain complexity was too often used as an excuse for inaction.

“As one of the biggest tea buyers in the world, Unilever has immense influence in Assam.

“Their domination of the market means they can take the lion’s share of the profit, leaving suppliers very little for fair wages.

“Under international law and the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights, Unilever has a responsibility to respect labour rights, including the right to a just wage, across their supply chain.”

Project Didi fights human trafficking

A registered Australian charity since 2014, Project Didi has worked to improve the lives of women in Nepal through better girls’ homework centres, women’s literacy, and business development. However, an injection of new voices and a new board in 2019 took the home-grown charity in a different direction.  

Ms Spackman said the new strategy meant a partnership with another Australian charity, Be Slavery Free, and expanded goals to support futures of “hope, dignity, and independence” for survivors of trafficking and abuse – a particular problem in Assam.

An Indian police report (Criminal Investigation Department) estimated at least 4,754 children went missing in Assam between 2012 and 2017.

Ms Spackman said Project Didi and Be Slavery Free wanted to communicate to the Australian community the direct link between trafficking, slavery, and the products bought here through global supply chains.

“There is a lot of evidence that when workers do not have enough to survive, they are much more susceptible to sending their children away,” she said.

“Traffickers prey on the workers’ desire for a better life, trapping them in exploitation and sexual slavery in Indian cities.

“It’s a critical time to be calling for change in the tea industry; COVID-19 has illuminated the insecurity and potential for exploitation in global supply chains.

“Without a living wage, workers lack the safety net to withstand crises and ensure safe, healthy futures for their families. As tea drinkers and consumers, we have power to create real change for those that pick our tea.”

Be Slavery Free’s co-director Carolyn Kitto said she had visited the tea plantations in Assam where T2 sources its tea on many occasions.

“The conditions people are living in are substandard and it is no wonder they are deceived by the possibility of a different future for their children. “

Progress so far

Fewer than 50 emails from concerned T2 customers brought T2’s CEO Nicole Sparshott to the table and facilitated campaign representatives to meet with Unilever global director of human rights stewardship.

Although Ms Spackman said conversations were confidential and no agreement had been reached, they were ongoing.

“It took less than 50 emails for T2’s CEO to take notice,” she said.

“Now, over 100 emails have been sent, so imagine what 1,000 will achieve?

“This is why we need to keep up the momentum: send an email, spread the word or host a tea party for awareness,” Ms Spackman said.

Project Didi has email templates and a tea party hosting guide on their website.https://www.projectdidiaustralia.org/somethingforslavery.html

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