‘Time is up’: Human rights NGO calls out sexual violence and poverty wages in tea supply chain

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Human rights abuses in the tea sector under the spotlight / Pic: GettyImages-stellalevi
Human rights abuses in the tea sector under the spotlight / Pic: GettyImages-stellalevi

Related tags Human rights Tea

Human rights advocates are calling ‘time’ on abuses in the tea supply chain, with a new initiative designed to increase transparency in the sector.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has launched the world’s first searchable tea plantation database in a move it hopes will help shine a light on what Head of Labour Rights Thulsi Narayanasamy describes as ‘long-standing issues’ around human rights abuses in the sector.

“Rights abuses on tea plantations have been around for a long time and they’re not getting any better,”​ Narayanasamy told FoodNavigator. “It’s been too long that the same issues have persisted in tea supply chains.”

The human rights advocate pointed to a catalogue of abuses that could be linked to the tea leaves that go into your daily cuppa, from dangerous working conditions to forced labour. In particular, she called out poverty wages and systemic gender-based violence as blights on the industry.

“One of the huge issues is poverty wages. Workers live and work on the same plantations in housing that is in a terrible state. The wages they earn are simply not enough to live on. The tea sector keeps 13m workers in a state of permanent poverty… The excuse given is that the legal minimum wage is paid but companies have an obligation to ensure living wages,”​ she argued.

Meanwhile, 90% of Kenyan tea workers report having either witnessed or experienced gender-based violence, including rape, on plantations. Similar levels exist in other key tea producing regions, Narayanasamy stressed. “It is an inherently unsafe environment for women. But it is an issue that doesn’t get taken seriously.”

GettyImages - Jonathan Kantor tea
Are human rights abuses hiding in the supply chain of your cup of tea? / Pic: GettyImages - Jonathan Kantor

Narayanasamy traces the reason for this to a lack of binding regulation, a lack of awareness and - significantly – a lack of willingness from tea brands to take responsibility for human rights breaches in their supply chains. According to the activist, the tea sector is ‘miles behind’ industries like apparel, where the Rana Plaza collapse forced the hand of fashion brands.

“It goes back to them shirking their responsibility for those workers. They don’t understand they have a responsibility directly for workers in their tea supply chains. They don’t understand this is something they have an obligation to address. They have a vested interest in being miles behind. But time is up. They should be worried.”

‘There is a reckoning coming’

Why should tea businesses operating in Europe be concerned? Narayanasamy explained upcoming EU human rights due diligence regulation means they need to get serious about their responsibilities, and fast.

“There is a reckoning that’s coming for the tea industry: mandatory EU human rights due diligence legislation.”

She warned: “The risks of failing to address rights abuses are rapidly rising and the tea industry is not prepared. Mandatory human rights due diligence legislation is on the way, alongside an increasing rise in import bans and ESG-focused investing, spelling the end of companies shirking direct responsibility for the workers who pick their tea. Companies which refuse to operate transparently will soon find themselves legally liable for human rights abuses taking place in their supply chains.”

Getty Images Oleh_Slobodeniuk tea plantation
The regulatory environment is tightening / Pic: Getty Images Oleh_Slobodeniuk

Tea businesses are already having to answer for alleged human rights abuses in European and US courts.

This year, women working on plantations in Malawi filed a claim in the UK courts against their employer Lujeri and its UK-headquartered parent company, agribusiness multinational PGI. The women said their employer failed to protect them from systemic sexual abuse, with allegations – which are yet to be proven before the High Court in London - including 22 instances of sexual harassment, 13 instances of sexual assault, 11 instances of coerced sexual relations and 10 instances of rape. The plantations have been linked to household brands including PG Tips, Typhoo, Yorkshire Tea and Tetley.

Sapna Malik, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, is representing the women. “Our clients are incredibly vulnerable women who have fallen prey to systemic and pervasive sexual harassment, assaults and in several cases rape, by their male colleagues. Many have been forced into coercive sexual relations by their male superiors just to keep their jobs, feed their families and avoid further victimisation at work,”​ she asserted.

A similar case against British company Camellia Group – also pursued by attorneys at Leigh Day – saw a settlement deal reached that included compensation for the claimants and the establishment of a number of measures designed to improve the safety and security of female employees and improve conditions for women in the wider community.

Transparency tracker ‘to hold tea companies accountable’

According to BHRRC, the tea sector is beset by ‘a widespread lack of transparency’ – in spite of these serious abuses and good levels of traceability and supply chain mapping.

“All the large retailers and tea companies know where their tea comes from,”​ Narayanasamy said. “Traceability is not an issue for the tea sector.”

However, companies have been reticent to disclose this information publicly. This lack of transparency inhibits human rights advocates and, Narayanasamy believes, signals an unwillingness to take responsibility for conditions within the tea supply chain.

BHRRC is launching a transparency tracker to help address this situation. The aim is to directly link companies to the tea plantations they source from, allowing workers and consumers alike to know where the tea goes.

The organisation approached 65 companies to disclose their supplier lists. Of these, 29 engaged with the request and just 17 disclosed their list of sourcing estates and factories.

Companies like Marks and Spencer and Tesco disclosed information ‘quite quickly’ and Morrisons ‘went above and beyond’ to ensure the information they were sharing was transparent. Meanwhile, companies like Sainsbury’s, Rewe and Lidl all refused to share supply chain data with the human rights organisation.

“It became clear that disclosure – or failure to disclose – was about internal politics and will,”​ Narayanasamy claimed.

While Sainsbury’s did not engage in the initiative initially, when contacted by FoodNavigator the UK retailer told us that it planned to participate in future transparency efforts with BHRRC.

“We’re contacting the BHRRC to reassure them we can provide information to inform the index in future. We're also explaining that we're committed to sourcing all our products in a sustainable and ethical way and our tea is no exception,”​ a spokesperson said.

“We continue to source Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance accredited tea and together with these accreditations we work with our suppliers to ensure all their workers have safe working environments and are paid fairly. If we identify any evidence to suggest otherwise immediate action is taken and we have a long history of working closely with suppliers to address any issues identified in our supply chains. We also continue to work with the Ethical Trade Initiative on human rights issues and are in discussions with the Ethical Tea Partnership for further interventions in tea supply chains specifically.”

GettyImages-Tom Werner shop grocery consumer
Human rights advocates want to see greater transparency from tea companies / Pic: GettyImages-Tom Werner

German supermarket Lidl, meanwhile insisted that while it had not participated in the transparency tracker it 'stands by its responsibility to respect and protect human rights in the supply chain'. A spokesperson pointed to the company's mandatory supplier code of conduct, which requires business partners to comply with 'social standards' along the supply chain, its policy on human rights in the supply chain and its corporate due diligence policy.  

As part of the continuous development of its human rights due diligence, Lidl stressed that it regularly carries out in-depth risk assessments, so-called Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs), according to internationally recognized methodology. Lidl carried out an HRIA the Kenyan tea supply chain in 2020​. The company is the first German retailer to sign up to the Ethical Tea Partnership, the spokesperson continued. 

On why the retailer decided not to share its supply chain data with BHRRC, the spokesperson explained: "At Lidl, we value transparency. That's why we are one of the first food retailers in the world to publish information on the independent suppliers of our food and fruit and vegetable assortment. We have not been opposed to BHRRC’s important undertaking on disclosing retailer tea supply chains. Rather, we have been preparing our own disclosure this year and will publish details on the producers of our tea suppliers by January, 2022."

For her part, Narayanasamy hopes to see an industry-wide acceptance of the need to be transparent and tackle human rights abuses head on. “For the millions of workers on tea plantations frequently working under horrifyingly exploitative conditions, transparency allows workers to directly seek remedy from tea companies when their rights are being abused.

“Tea companies can end the inequality of power and the tolerance of misery and abuse which plagues the industry in a stroke; it’s just a matter of them having the will to make the decision to publish their supplier lists.”

ED: This article was updated on 16 December 2021 to reflect additional comments from Lidl. 

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