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30-Jun-2018 - How easy is it to drink an ethical cuppa?

While we’re all familiar with the idea of fair trade coffee, fair trade tea seems to get rather less attention. In the UK, fair trade tea accounts for only about 8 per cent of all tea sales, generating £3.3 million per year in premiums that are invested in community projects in and around the tea plantations. In contrast, around £32 million in premiums is raised for investment in coffee plantations; almost ten times as much.

tea image

This is not because conditions on tea plantations are wonderful, far from it. You only have to speak to Melissa Day, founder of Niroshini Fundraising, to understand the deep-rooted social issues that affect almost every family that picks the tea that ends up making your daily cuppa.

After being adopted at just 8 weeks old from a Sri Lankan tea plantation by a British family, Melissa grew up in the UK, graduated from university and started her own business, called Niroshini Acupuncture, based in Ipswich and London.

Despite the many years elapsed, the terrible civil war and the devastating tsunami, she eventually (and miraculously) traced her family in Sri Lanka and was reunited with her mother and the two brothers she never knew she had. An amazing, life-changing day for all of them.

Unfortunately however, on this trip Melissa also discovered the dire conditions that her family and thousands like them, face every day on the tea plantations. Most live on less than $1 per day; a long way below the UN poverty band. Work is seasonal, with no income in between. Many of the men have alcohol addictions and their families inevitably suffer too. Education is available but standards are poor due to the employment of unqualified teachers and the journeys children and young people face to even get to school are punishing.

A recent BBC documentary revealed the terrible conditions tea workers endured on a tea estate in Assam which supplied tea to PG Tips, Liptons, Tetley and Twinings and found that child labour was practiced on another estate that supplies Twinings, Yorkshire Tea and even Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. “Tea is such a big part of British life and many people would be shocked if they knew the poverty people endure on many of the tea plantations,” Melissa says. Yet how often do we think about this when we buy our box of 80 tea bags at the supermarket? Most familiar brands of tea have their “ethical policies” on their websites – no child labour, safe working conditions, living wages paid - but the reality is the companies who buy the tea know little of what goes on in the plantations. Even the Rainforest Alliance, the ethical certification body that looks into these issues, had to concede the BBC investigation which revealed major flaws in its audit process.

So how can you try to buy tea that is ethical and from estates where workers are fairly treated?

• Research which teas are Direct Trade – meaning companies that buy direct from the farmer, (cutting out the middle men) allowing them a higher percentage of the margin

• Try the Ethical Consumer – a guide that allows you to decide which factors are most important to you and adjusts the table accordingly

Melissa champions Direct Trade and in 2018, launched her own Direct Trade tea brand, featuring her signature Niroshini Flowering Black Velvet. A percentage of profits, from tea sales, will be donated to Niroshini Fundraising's causes.

Thank you to "A Girl with Tea" for the use of this photograph.

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