Beyond fair-trade in Taiwan

Beyond fair-trade in Taiwan

Last month Edgar and Ali went to Taiwan to seek out the best tea for our customers to experience next season. This blog recounts a typical day in the life of a tea picker and explores how a skill shortage is driving up wages – and ensuring workers in the picking and processing stages of tea production enjoy high standards of living.

Let’s discuss Taiwan in general. Compared to other tea producing countries, Taiwan has a high standard of living. Minimum wage works out at about £500 per month (at the current exchange rate), compared with neighbouring China whose minimum wage varies from around £120 to £200 per month depending on the region. And the people who pick and process Taiwanese tea earn much more than minimum wage.

Tea picking and processing is said to be a dying art in Taiwan. The country nowadays is dotted with cool cosmopolitan cities full of restaurants, bars, clubs, universities and shiny offices; all connected by high-speed bullet trains. For the majority of young people, city life is far more appealing than earning a living in the tea plantations. Clambering up steep fields with heavy baskets on your back, in a remote mountain village, with not a craft beer bar in sight? But this is good news for those that do choose to stay. With the demand for tea high and a massive shortage of people to harvest it, the pickers and makers command high wages.

So how does it work? The industry operates differently here than in other countries. Rather than the large estates that we see in India and Africa that employ a permanent workforce, Taiwan’s tea is generally grown on smaller family-run farms. Pickers operate in ‘crews’ who travel between gardens, working from high altitude down to the lower altitude gardens.

Generally, they will be at each garden for five to seven days during which time food and accommodation is provided. Once they’ve finished up in one place, it’s straight on to the next one. The atmosphere in a Taiwanese tea garden is pretty relaxed. On Ali Shan, a mountainous region renowned for its oolongs, the day starts at 7am and finishes at lunchtime. During picking time, the pickers chat with each other, scroll through their phones and go for regular breaks. When the clock strikes 12 they find a comfy place to perch and lunch along with a warm can of beer. Lunch is a rather delicious looking box of noodles, rice, boiled egg, some appetising meat stew and steamed veg. After lunch the tea is weighed, the pickers are paid and have the afternoon free. The tea is then driven up to the processing plant. There are, however, some downsides to this arrangement for the farmer. Mr Shih, of a garden we visited in Sun Moon Lake, grumbled that back in the day the picking standard was much easier to control – one bud and two to three leaves. Now they pick one bud and three or four leaves because they are paid by weight and that extra leaf makes all the difference. When I asked Mr Shih why he wasn’t more strict with the pickers he told me: ‘You have to be good to the pickers, if they don’t like you they don’t come back next year – the pickers are the real boss.’

Processing is done in a similar way; making the rolled oolongs that Taiwan is famous for requires high levels of skill and there is intense competition between gardens. As a result, expert tea makers are brought in during the harvesting season to make the very best tea possible. A tea master will have a crew of assistants who travel with them from garden to garden. Those with a good reputation will be brought back year on year and can charge a high premium. Mr Chiu of our Ali Shan tea garden compared the tea masters to top chefs. Each chef has their own special methods which produce a distinct flavour, so each year they bring back the same chef to ensure continuity of their product.

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – how much does a tea picker actually earn? Well, it varies from place to place. The more remote the garden or the more difficult the terrain, the more they charge. We asked each of the gardens how much they paid their pickers (as we always do); in Li Shan, the remotest area we visited, Mr Chang tells us he pays the equivalent of £10 for 1 jin (or 600g) of tea picked. The tea master who comes to make the tea is paid £200 per day and his assistants are paid about £80. In Sun Moon Lake, pickers are paid $600 (about £500) per week, which is the minimum monthly wage in Taiwan.

There are no two ways about it, Taiwanese teas are expensive. But when you buy Canton Pouchong, you not only get silky, floral, fruity deliciousness; you can also rest easy knowing everyone in the growing, picking and processing stages are being paid properly.

our values and ethics

Canton’s values are expressed in the integrity of our product and our sourcing policies. Our tea tastes good because we source the best and build on longstanding grower-buyer relationships. We can only do that by having mutual respect with the artisan farmers, paying the market price for these delicious and ethically-produced teas.

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