Women from the H'Mong Tribe in Northern Vietnam picking leaves from wild native tea trees.

Women from the H'Mong Tribe in Northern Vietnam picking leaves from wild native tea trees.

black&white #05: Why the UN’s International Tea Day matters

2 min steep

Last week, after more than a year of hardship and uncertainty, restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels opened their doors to welcome scores of delighted customers inside without the flying napkins and soggy bottom.   

It was also the UN’s International Tea Day on Friday 21 May, which celebrates tea and its role in sustainable development, agriculture and industry around the world. As the world’s most consumed drink after water, tea production and processing is the main source of income for millions of families around the world – particularly in poor and developing countries. And because tea farming requires lots of land and very particular weather conditions, like high altitudes, and the production process is so labour intensive, tea offers families a livelihood in some of the most remote and economically disadvantaged corners of the globe. This is why it’s so important to buy the best-quality tea you can afford.

Child in the H'mong Tribe in Northern Vietnam holding hands with mother.

01 A child from the H'mong Tribe in Northern Vietnam. Women from the tribe harvest leaves as part of the Van-Chan co-operative, giving them a safer, more reliable alternative to opium production.

Tea has significant potential to help aid rural development, poverty reduction and food security in developing countries – but only if the workers are being treated well and paid properly. Earlier this year, farm workers from Kenya launched a lawsuit against one of the giant tea corporations, claiming they’ve suffered severe and long-term health problems due to poor working conditions on the tea plantations. Sadly, injustices like these are all too common in the industry. Back in 2015, a BBC investigation revealed the appalling and inhumane living and working conditions on tea estates in Assam, including poor sanitation, below minimum-wage pay, exposure to chemicals and child labour. Many of these tea estates supplied some of Britain’s biggest tea brands (think the ones stacked high on supermarket shelves). Cheap tea often comes at a terrible price.

Of course, standards differ in each country, but a large, well-managed tea estate should provide their workers with, at the very least, proper housing, education, paid leave and free healthcare. Smaller family-run farms and cooperatives tend to offer even better working conditions, as they’re able to charge a premium for the artisan quality of their production methods and harvest.

Children singing songs in the classroom at Glenburn Primary School of the Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling

02 “A tea garden is not just about employer and employee, it’s about a community.” - Anshuman Prakash, owner of Glenburn Tea Estate. The children of Glenburn Primary School which is supported by the Tea Estate in Darjeeling.

Many of the cooperatives and farms we source from provide a valuable source of income for regions around the world. The young buds in Canton Rosebuds come from the Lalehzar Valley in Iran. The farmers in this region once grew opium poppies. Cultivating roses now provides a safer, more secure livelihood. Similarly, the moringa leaves in Canton Botanical Calm are farmed by a women’s cooperative in Burkina Faso. Founded in 1982, it was originally intended to cultivate medicinal plants but, when that direction was unviable, the women started growing moringa. A partnership with the Dreyer Foundation has meant that the co-op has also been able to set up a rice-growing project, which involves over 2000 local farmers and benefits thousands of people in the region. 

Smiling tea picker at the Khongea Estate in Assam

03 A tea picker on the Khongea Estate in Assam.

Photograph: Kate Popham

International Tea Day was created to promote and celebrate the transformative effect tea production can have in fighting poverty and hunger, empowering women and maintaining sustainable ecosystems through agriculture. So, keep drinking the best teas and share them to get your friends hooked too - it really can make a difference.

- Jennifer Wood, Founder

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