Tea, the coveted product and its subordinate producer

A warm blanket, a nice movie and a steaming cup of tea, that’s all you need to make it cosy at home. Tea is a coveted product in Europe and the total consumption continues to grow each year. Even here in Belgium, we drink it in many circumstances. Alone or with others. To make ourselves cosy or to unwind. During the afternoon tea or during another break.


Tea is made from the buds and leaves of the tea plant and can be harvested all year round. Although the term tea is also used for infusions of herbs – camomile tea or jasmine tea – in popular speech, tea basically always contains leaves of the tea shrub. The tea plant grows best in warm and humid regions, at a certain altitude. China, Kenya, Sri Lanka and India are the largest tea-producing countries in the world.

Despite the fact that tea is often associated with tranquillity and cosiness, the production of tea is a whole other story. Tea producers and workers cannot capitalize on the coveted product that cannot be produced in the North. Oxfam calculated that 85% of the world’s production is owned by just seven food companies. Its production takes place on large-scale tea plantations, the tea gardens.


This concentration of power and large-scale cultivation ensures that the workers have no bargaining power. After all, there is little alternative employment in the tea regions, which results in low wages, long working hours, hard work, a lack of labour rights and poor conditions they have to live in. There are small-scale farmers that cultivate tea, but even they can’t escape the subordinate position of power. The farmers have to compete against the large plantations and other small properties, they often have less market information and they don’t always have the necessary resources to increase the quality of their products and the productivity of their companies.

They also face some trade barriers, such as import tariffs on the export of tea and auction houses where buyers and sellers face each other and the world market price is decided. Those auction houses are disadvantageous for the tea producers as buyers work together and don’t bid against each other, keeping the prices low. As a result, farmers only earn a fraction of the price paid for tea.

Beside the social impact, there are also major ecological consequences. Large-scale tea production is often accompanied by frequent use of chemicals. Moreover, deforestation, soil pollution and water pollution have been reported.

Many labels devote themselves to the tea communities. For example, the Ethical Tea Partnership is committed to making the tea industry fairer, better, and more sustainable for workers, farmers, their families and the environment. The largest label by far is the recently merged UTZ & Rainforest Alliance. Almost all large tea brands have a part of their products UTZ/Rainforest Alliance certified. The reliability of this large label remains to be seen.


Fairtrade International and Oxfam Fair Trade are actively trying to improve the situation of small-scale farmers as well as the situation of the workers on the plantations. The standards commit to improving working conditions, protecting rights and offering support to members of cooperatives. Through these standards, workers and farmers are given a greater say and they can increase their income. They also provide a minimum price that functions as a safety net against the unpredictable market and an additional Fairtrade premium.

By choosing fair and sustainable tea, we can extend our good associations with tea to the workers and farmers.

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